Labour has taken control of Plymouth council from the Conservatives in the England local elections – securing a key target in a battleground regarded as crucial to the party’s hopes in a future Westminster contest.
The party needed five gains to take overall control of the council, which had been led by a minority Conservative administration, and managed to make six gains on the night.
Conservative minister Johnny Mercer told said it had been a “terrible night” for the Tories in Plymouth. He attributed Labour gaining the council to “a number of factors”, including “a difficult time” for the local Tory group.
“But we take it on the chin and we keep going forward. There’s really important stuff happening on a national level and we need to redouble our efforts and make sure we continue to work hard for the people here in Plymouth,” he told the BBC’s election special programme.
Asked whether he would want the prime minister to “step things up”, Mercer said: “I’ve been in and out of government, I’ve been in and out under different prime ministers.
“Rishi Sunak is a different class. He is capable, smart, professional, empathetic, a strong leader and the sort of strong leader this country needs at this time. And it’s down to people like me and others to advocate for him.”
Lifelong Tory supporters in the city had been among voters left seething at a decision earlier this year by the council – then controlled by a Conservative minority administration – to fell 110 trees in the centre of Plymouth, prompting a public outcry.
Keir Starmer had visited Plymouth early in the local elections campaign as the party threw resources into winning back control of a city currently represented by two Conservative MPs and one from Labour.
A third of the city’s council seats were being contested, with Labour defending eight, the Conservatives six, with independents four and the Greens one.
Over the past 25 years in the second largest city of England’s south-west, there have been four Conservative majority administrations, five Labour majority administrations and four periods of “no overall control”.
Local Labour MP Luke Pollard told LBC Radio’s Iain Dale: “It has been a stunning night for Labour in Plymouth. We won every single seat in our target parliamentary constituency of Plymouth Moor View.
“It has seen people come back to Labour in huge droves, not only showing that the carnival of chaos, the Tory council chopping down trees and cutting public services is unwanted, but the Tory Government is unwanted.”
The local elections are considered a key test for Rishi Sunak. The Tories are braced for heavy losses across the country, with Labour and the Liberal Democrats both making gains in the local elections overnight.
The Conservatives lost control of councils in Tamworth and Brentford, while Labour replaced them as the largest party in Hartlepool and Worcester. Labour also gained the key “red wall” city of Stoke-on-Trent from no overall control.
In Tamworth – the seat of scandal-hit former Tory whip Chris Pincher – Labour made seven gains, pushing it from Conservative into no overall control.
But in Hull, Labour’s attempts to regain the council from the Liberal Democrats failed, with Sir Ed Davey’s party tightening its grip on the authority.
A Labour source told the Press Association: “Tory MPs will be very worried. This is supposed to be Rishi Sunak’s political honeymoon, but on these results they would have lost a bunch of seats – including one they’ve held for over 100 years.”
Liberal Democrat deputy leader Daisy Cooper said: “I have knocked on countless doors in recent weeks and heard real anger and frustration from voters who are sick and tired of being taken for granted by this Conservative government. Tonight their voices will be heard.”
The contests were the first to be fought under new rules requiring voters to carry photographic ID, and the elections watchdog said “regrettably” some people were turned away from polling stations as a result.
An Electoral Commission spokesman said: “We already know from our research that the ID requirement posed a greater challenge for some groups in society, and that some people were regrettably unable to vote today as a result.
“It will be essential to understand the extent of this impact, and the reasons behind it, before a final view can be taken on how the policy has worked in practice and what can be learned for future elections.”
Tom Brake of Unlock Democracy, who is leading a coalition of groups opposed to the policy including the Electoral Reform Society, Fair Vote UK and Open Britain, said: “Today has been a dark day for British democracy. Reports from all over the country confirm our very worst fears of the impact of the disastrous policy which has been made worse by the shambolic way it has been introduced.”
The Association of Electoral Administrators’ chief executive Peter Stanyon said there had been “many anecdotal reports” of people being unable to vote but “it is still too early to gauge how introducing voter ID has gone”.
More than 8,000 council seats were up for election on Thursday across 230 local authorities, while mayors were being chosen in Bedford, Leicester, Mansfield and Middlesbrough.
The last time the same council seats were contested was in May 2019, when the Tories performed poorly under Theresa May as she struggled with Brexit and Labour under Jeremy Corbyn also suffered.
The Conservatives lost more than 1,300 council seats and majority political control of 44 councils, meaning they had less to lose on Thursday than they might have done.
About a quarter of the votes are expected to be counted overnight, with the rest counted during the day on Friday.