At the City of Wolverhampton Market business is brisk, but it’s a hard time for the traders and their customers.
Richard Dollar, a fishmonger who has run his popular stall for 20 years, says he’s never known it this tough, as he talks about trying to stay afloat amid rising costs and price.
“Some of the [price of] fish is doubling,” says Richard who makes a weekly round-trip to Billingsgate market in London to buy his stock.
“I used to pay, say £10 a box, now I’m paying nearly £20 a box,” he tells me from behind his counter filled with fresh fish on ice.
“Sea bass, I did five for £10, then four for £10, then three for £10. Soon I won’t be able to do those prices because every week when I go, the prices have gone up.
“Nearly everything I sell has gone up.”
And it’s not just the fish. It costs Richard nearly £140 to fill up his van to make the journey to London when it once cost him £80. But he’s loathe to pass on rising costs to customers because he’s worried they’ll stop buying his product.
His margins are being squeezed and so is he. “I’m feeling it,” he tells me. “I have two members of staff and I have to pay them, whether I make money or not. It’s really bad.”
Over at one of the fruit and vegetable stores, Derek Lewis has a similar story. His customers are struggling with the cost-of-living crisis and he’s trying to help them as best he can.
“Every single customer that comes to the store [is worried about money],” he tells me. “Nine out of ten are asking for a discount. Because they’re struggling. Everybody’s struggling. I realise they’re struggling. So I try and keep the prices as low as possible.”
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The experiences of these traders and their customers are being felt up and down the country. And when you add it to the political and leadership crisis brought about by revelations of multiple rule-breaking events in Downing Street – 50 fines issued to staff including the PM and his chancellor and counting – it’s a difficult backdrop for Boris Johnson‘s Conservatives at these local elections.
Explainer: Local Elections 2022 – when are they, how do they work and why are they significant?
For Thursday’s elections across Great Britain will be the first ballot box test for Mr Johnson since the Partygate scandal erupted and the cost-of-living crisis really began to bite.
Of course, people vote on local as well as national issues in local elections, and turnout is much lower than in a general election, but it is true too that many of Mr Johnson’s MPs see these elections as an acid test of his own standing amongst voters.
As one senior Conservative MP and Johnson opponent put it to me the other day when I asked them if they thought a confidence vote could come after the 5 May polls: “I think it could well happen. A number of colleagues post-dated their letters [of no confidence] to 10pm 5 May.”
In other words, some MPs are waiting until polling day is over to try to oust their prime minister, or as another senior Conservative MP put it to me: “The pre-contest to succeed Mr Johnson is well under way,” with would-be contenders – names that come up are plentiful including Liz Truss, Nadhim Zahawi, Sajid Javid, Ben Wallace, Tom Tugendhat, Jeremy Hunt, Penny Mordaunt – beginning to canvass MPs to test possible support. (Rishi Sunak is now in some peril following revelations about his wife’s non-dom status and his own fixed penalty notice).
So where are the Tories’ big ballot box tests? Some of the key battlegrounds will be in London where the Conservatives hold seven councils, Westminster and Wandsworth earmarked as key tests.
All three parliamentary constituencies in the Wandsworth borough are Labour and the Tories hold this council by just three seats.
In Westminster, borough-wide voting couldn’t have been closer last time with less than a two percentage-point difference between Labour and the Conservatives, while boundary changes have reduced the number of seats on the council with the Tories looking like the principal losers.
Barnet, where the Conservatives have either been in control or the largest party since 1964, is one to watch too.
Away from London, with eyes on Tory general election gains of 2019, it’s worth looking at how the two parties fare in some of those ‘red wall’ areas. A third of the council is up for re-election in Barnsley where Labour’s vote share suffered a sharp decline between 2018-2019.
Labour is defending 19 seats here and can’t afford losses.
Keep an eye out too for Wolverhampton, where the Conservatives took two constituencies from Labour in 2019, and Hartlepool, where the Conservatives won the by-election in 2021 – can Labour defend its ground this time around?
Any swing to Labour will confirm leader Keir Starmer‘s current poll leads and put Boris Johnson under more pressure; it’s noticeable that Conservative party sources are already briefing about the drubbing the party is about to receive, setting expectations low in the hope that it’s not quite as bad as all of that on the night.
One clear reason it might not be is that this is an election that tests Labour from a high watermark, making it harder for the opposition to make gains.
More than 4,350 of the seats up for grabs on Thursday were last contested in 2018 when Jeremy Corbyn‘s Labour party posted its best performance at local elections since 2012, so gains might not be that easy to come by.
Psephologists (election analysts) Michael Thrasher and Colin Rallings say gains of 200 or more seats would represent the best performance for Labour in a decade, and a marker on the way to Labour becoming the largest party in Westminster, even if short of an outright majority.
Put these elections into the context of a general election, and a swing of 7 per cent would make Labour the largest party – and the key seats for this target are Pendle and Northampton North. But remember too, that Labour is defending 2,971 seats – 43 per cent of all vacancies – so scope to make major gains is limited.
‘Operation Clear Day’
But Labour insiders tell me the party is internally tracking 35 marginal or target seats closely – places like Stevenage, Bury, Glasgow and Southampton – as these are places Labour need to win to win at a general election.
“Operation Clear Day,” as it has been dubbed, is an attempt by Starmer’s team to look past the net gains (or losses) of councillors towards the horizon, to see how the party is tracking for the general election.
But really this set of elections is a test for the embattled Boris Johnson and whether he can still appeal to voters against the backdrop of his recent difficulties.
So, what does a ‘victory or loss’ look like on the day? Mr Thrasher and Mr Rallings argue that coming out of these elections without net losses or gains would be good result, but losses of 350 seats or more – the likely result of pincer movement between Labour and the Lib Dems (watch for inroads in the Tory south and parts of outer London) – will be of big concern, particularly given that fewer than 1900 of the 6,800 seats across Great Britain are currently held by the Tories (Labour are defending 2,971).
The big question for the Conservative party into Friday and beyond is whether Mr Johnson can lead them to a majority in the next general election, or whether the prime minister has become a drag anchor on the Tory brand. And some of that will depend not just on this particular set of elections, but on the contents of the Sue Gray report, the parliamentary inquiry into his conduct and whether the police issue him with more fines for breaking lockdown rules in Downing Street.
But even more important than all of that, is what those voters were talking to me about in Wolverhampton – the cost-of-living crisis, galloping inflation and fears for their livelihoods.
This is a prime minister who promised to level up the country and improve the lives of people up and down the land. If he goes into the next election with people feeling less well off, he’ll have failed.
It was President Bill Clinton’s strategist James Carville who coined the phrase “it’s the economy, stupid” to unseat George Bush snr in the 1992 election, when America was in the midst economic recession and President Bush was perceived as out of touch with the needs of ordinary Americans.
It was a message the Democrats hammered home to voters, and it stuck. And it’s a strategy that Labour is now pursuing too.
Back in Wolverhampton, the risk for the current incumbent is all too clear. Store owner Derek Lewis is a floating voter who voted Conservative in the 2019 general election, but believes the cost-of-living crisis could sink this government.
“I think [Boris Johnson’s] doing ok, but if he doesn’t get the interest rate under control, it’s plain and simple – the way people are talking, he’ll be out of office at the next election.
“It’s down to him at the end of the day. He’s got to help people out, especially people who are struggling really big. Having to choose between heating and eating in this day and age, is absolutely ridiculous.”