While the council election results last week were mixed, there is no denyng that, overall, the Conservatives were in retreat. There were substantial losses in Wales and Scotland – which was pretty much inevitable as those seats had last been contested in 2017 – which was a very good year for the Conservatives in the local elections. For England, the comparison was mostly with 2018 when the contest was more even between Labour and the Conservatives. Most of the contests took place on Labour territory. But it was possible to extrapolate a projected national vote share. In 2018 the Conservatives were one point ahead. This time Labour came in two points ahead. They were on 35 per cent, with the Conservatives on 33 per cent according to the calculations by Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher for the Sunday Times.
Labour’s lead in vote share was a few points below their lead in most recent opinion polls. Usually, Labour’s local election vote is a bit below their opinion poll ratings at the time. By contrast, the Lib Dems tend to do better in their local elections vote share than in the opinion polls – the Sunday Times analysis had them on 17 per cent, while the opinion polls have them on 12 per cent or below.
So in that sense, Labour’s vote share met reasonable expectations. Talk of devastation for the Conservatives from some pundits a few weeks ago rested on the assumption that Labour would have an opinion lead well into double figures.
The more relevant test looks at historic comparisons of how well an opposition party should be doing mid-term if it expects to win the next General Election. Mark Pack has produced a useful summary of past local election results. In the 2009 local elections, the Conservatives were ahead of Labour by 15 points on projected national vote share. Under Ed Miliband’s leadership in 2013 Labour was nine points ahead in projected national vote share in the local elections. We didn’t have a calculation of projected national vote share for 2000 but under William Hague’s leadership the Conservatives had pretty good results and would probably have been several points ahead if such a calculation had been made.
A rule of thumb is an opposition party should have a lead of well into double figures in projected national vote share in the local elections a year or two years before a General Election to really be “on course for victory” when that General Election comes.
Next the measure of the number of councillors. The Conservatives made net losses of 336 seats in England – plus 86 in Wales and 63 in Scotland. But these seats went all over the place. Labour’s net gains were much smaller than the Conservative net losses. So that means that my prediction that the Conservatives would still be the largest party of local government in the UK was proved correct. Given the significant lead the Conservatives have, it was a pretty safe prediction – it would have meant a wipeout for it to be otherwise. Yet after 12 years in power natonally it remains a notable achievement.
Beneath the surface of these figures, there was significant variation. In London we saw Labour gain Barnet, Wandsworth and Westminister – but lose Croydon, Harrow and Tower Hamlets. So they ended up running the same number of boroughs as before. I predicted that Labour would “not make overall progress in London” and so it has proved. I said there was a “decent chance” of the Conservatives gaining Harrow. Also that Enfield “is a borough where the Conservatives might well gain some seats – although probably not enough to sweep to victory.” I highlighted Labour’s poor record in Croydon. But my report of “optimism” that the Conservatives would gain Sutton from the Lib Dems and my declaration of being “sceptical” that Westminster would be lost did not age as well.
I said the Green Party would make “solid but modest progress.” That was about right. They ended up gaining 63 seats in England.
With the district councils I’m afraid my fears came true that the Conservatives could be in trouble from independents in Castle Point, the Lib Dems in Gosport, and from Labour in increasingly woke Worthing. More encouraging was that Labour missed two of the key tests highlighted for them – to make progress in Nuneaton and Newcastle-under-Lyme. They lost ground in both places.
Looking at towns and cities, I warned the Conservatives “will need to watch out for a Lib Dem revival” in Somerset and Wokingham, which transpired. I suggested that while Labour “may consolidate here and there, they will not make dramatic gains”. That was broadly fair. But their decisive victory in the new Council of Cumberland was an important result I did not anticipate. I thought Labour would “do well” in Wakefield which they did. However, they lost a couple of seats in Birmingham. They gained a couple in Derby and a couple in Dudley. In Peterborough they made no gains, in Bury only one. These were places I highlighted as key contests in terms of General Election implications where Labour needed to be making really strong gains.
Not too bad. I suppose I would give myself seven out of ten.
These results have not produced the fresh impetus to challenge Boris Johnson’s leadership that some expected. Tory morale will certainly have taken a jolt. The defeat in Wandsworth on it’s own was enough to ensure that, given it has been an iconic success story. Elsewhere, even the modest overall setback will be discouraging for Conservatives who have got used to make advances. Those of us who remember the John Major era will be thankful they went as well as they did.