Speaking to Conservative councillors and council candidates around the country this week, I have found them more upbeat about the local elections than a couple of weeks ago. It must be conceded that this is a low bar. There is still an expectation of heavy losses. This would be the case even if the Conservatives and Labour were level pegging – as most of the seats are being defended from 2015 when the Conservatives performed strongly.
Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher have offered their customary analysis of Council by-elections for recent months for the Sunday Times. Their extrapolation finds that “the Tories have a national equivalent vote share of 35 per cent, with Labour on 34 per cent. The Lib Dems are on 16 per cent.” That would imply the Conservatives losing about 500 seats – a setback, but not a meltdown. Most of the losses would be to the Lib Dems.
In 2015, we won over 5,521 seats. It’s not an exact comparison, as some different contests are taking place next week to the ones four years ago. But it would mean containing the loss to under ten per cent. However, the recent opinion polls have suggested a clear lead for Labour – which could imply the Conservatives losing over a thousand seats. The Council by-elections being number-crunched date back to November.
Anyway, several conversations I have had this week, in private, reflect what Gareth Lyon was saying publicly on this site yesterday about Aldershot. When Brexit was dominating the news it was hard to avoid the subject on the doorstep. The last couple of weeks, other stories have tended to lead the bulletins and fill the front pages. That has made it easier for local messages to at least get a hearing. One councillor in the East Midlands tells me:
“This week I have had more people talking about badgers than Brexit. People are annoyed about badgers digging up their back gardens. What am I going to do about it? One woman says that her husband urinates in the back garden and that has solved the problem. Crime is a big issue. People think the police are ineffective. Even when people catch criminals on film the police won’t pursue it. A couple of weeks ago it was all Brexit. There is still an angry mood but it’s broadened out to all sorts of other issues.”
Some had a different experience. A campaigner I spoke to in the South East declared:
“The degree of anger is still just as strong to be honest. But we haven’t given up. We just constantly emphasise the distinction between us and the Government. It means we have to work harder. It’s like climbing a mountain and you think you are just getting to the top and then you realise there’s an extra ledge. We don’t have a sitting MP at the moment which helps.”
One council leader in the Eastern region says:
“We are very concerned. It is with anger, frustration, and sadness that we find our hard-earned reputations as trusty councillors squandered by the national debacle.”
A councillor in a neighbouring authority adds:
“There is anger with all the main parties because of Brexit. Not just us. I predict a low turnout and some fringe candidates winning. We will lose some excellent councillors – when experience is needed more now than ever before.”
Several people I spoke to endorsed this. All early indications are that the turnout will be down.
One item of Brexit news has been the launch of the Brexit Party. Some regard that as positive. One election agent said:
“It may actually help. They launched too late to have council candidates. But it gives voters an alternative outlet for their rage – if they would just wait for the Euro Elections. We are actually putting on our leaflets that with the Euro Elections there is no need to take it out on local councillors.”
Another seasoned campaigner adds:
“Even last time these seats were contested in 2015 there was quite a lot of vote splitting between the General and council elections. Voters are getting more sophisticated, less predictable. They do acknowledge these are local elections.”
Initial suspicions that Labour would also struggle have been confirmed. A councillor in the West Midlands told me:
“We have elections in thirds in our authority. Labour is showing much less energy than before. The novelty with Corbyn has worn off. Many of the Labour voters are Leavers. Almost all the Labour members are Remainers. None of them are very enthused at the moment.”
A campaigner in the North East suggested that Labour might lose seats in places like Sunderland.
There is no dispute that there is great anger with the Conservatives among traditional supporters of the Party who feel betrayed. The great unknown is how many of them will overcome their anger and still vote for us next week.