Labour leader Keir Starmer on the campaign trail ahead of local elections
Labour leader Keir Starmer on the campaign trail ahead of local elections AFP News

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's Conservatives braced for heavy losses Thursday in their first major electoral test since he became the UK's third leader in the space of a few chaotic weeks last year.

In the depths of the worst cost-of-living crisis in decades, the local council elections across England will shed light on the main parties' standing ahead of a UK-wide general election expected next year.

Sunak conceded that his Tory party faced a "hard" trial with voters, after it ditched Boris Johnson and then Liz Truss in quick succession last year.

"Good councillors will lose their seats because of all that has happened over the past year," he said at a think-tank event late Wednesday, according to the Daily Telegraph.

"I've only been prime minister for six months but I do believe we're making good progress," Sunak added.

Voting stations opened at 7:00 am (0600 GMT) for more than 8,000 council seats across 230 English districts, and will close at 10:00 pm (2100 GMT).

Most results should be clear by late Friday -- just as Britain gears up for Saturday's coronation of King Charles III.

In national polls, the opposition Labour party has built a double-digit lead over the Conservatives, and is portraying the municipal elections as a referendum on "13 years of Tory failure".

Surveys suggest that voters are deeply worried about double-digit inflation and the crisis engulfing the state-run National Health Service, as doctors and nurses strike for better pay.

Writing in the Daily Mirror newspaper on Thursday, Labour leader Keir Starmer laid out a charge sheet of failing public services, rising crime and record waiting lists at hospitals.

"Your vote matters," he said. "If you believe it's time to build a better Britain, grab your photo ID, get down to your polling station and vote for Labour today."

Sunak has defended a change introduced by his government for these elections requiring voters to show photo identification for the first time, a move denounced by Labour as an attempt to suppress the vote.

Labour is making progress towards recapturing its former strongholds in northern England, the so-called "red wall", which Johnson turned Tory in the 2019 general election on a vow to "get Brexit done".

London is not voting this time but the centrist Liberal Democrats are targeting Conservative districts on the edge of the capital, including in UK parliamentary constituencies represented by members of Sunak's cabinet -- dubbed the "blue wall".

"Senior Conservative MPs are in for a big shock," deputy Liberal Democrat leader Daisy Cooper said. "The Liberal Democrats are now on the cusp of causing a major political upset."

Overall, the worst-case scenario given by pollsters is for the Conservatives to lose 1,000 council seats across the areas of England that are voting on Thursday.

Sunak's party argues that anything less than 1,000 would amount to a win, and Labour has also been managing expectations for its likely successes.

Local elections in Britain tend to have low turnout, and public uncertainty about the new voter ID requirement could depress it further -- previously people could vote as long as they were listed on electoral rolls, without showing any identification.

Starmer said that if many voters are turned away, "we will be watching very carefully to see where responsibility lies".

Polling expert John Curtice said "a little bit of a partisan shadow" was potentially attached to the rule change, given that young people are "more inclined to vote Labour these days" but are less likely to have ID.

For the overall result, Curtice told the BBC that a Labour lead in the national vote share of more than 10 points could indicate that Starmer is on course for 10 Downing Street.

But voters assembled in one pre-election focus group had a damning verdict already on the Conservatives.

Asked by the think tank More in Common to describe the state of Britain in one word, the focus group's answers included "broken", "shambles", "mess", "struggling" and "crisis".

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is urging disaffected voters to come back to the Conservatives
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is urging disaffected voters to come back to the Conservatives AFP News