All but two English local authorities have now declared their results. So far, the Conservatives have made a net gain of 885 seats, Labour a net loss of 492, the Liberal Democrats a net loss 243, and Others and Independents, a net loss of 152. The Conservatives have made a net gain of 38 councils. The Conservatives now control over 200 English County, Borough and District councils, which puts them in their strongest position since 1978. Overall, nearly 44% of council seats in England and Wales are now held by the Conservatives, compared to 26% for Labour. That is not quite as wide a margin as in 1978, but is still a very large one.
In my previous article, I predicted the Conservatives would gain around 750 seats, and 18 new councils, which some people thought overoptimistic. In reality, it is clear I was over cautious. I certainly never expected councils like South Ribble, Windsor & Maidenhead, NW Leicstershire, Harborough, or Blackpool to be won as emphatically as they were. Nor did I expect to see the Liberal Democrats perform as badly as they did.
The BBC has projected that the Conservatives won the national equivalent of 40% of the vote, compared to 27% for Labour, and 26% for the Liberal Democrats. If this projection is correct (and Rallings and Thrasher will be producing a much more comprehensive projection in the next few days) then it gives the Conservatives a lead over Labour similar to that achieved in 1978, and similar to that achieved by Labour in 1996. Ignore the view expressed by Labour that the Conservatives need to be winning 47% of the vote to have a chance of victory at the next election. That is the sort of vote the Conservatives need to have a chance of winning a landslide, not a working majority.
With one important exception, the Conservatives performed well across all parts of England. For some hours, the Labour party were attempting to claim the Conservatives were performing poorly in the North of England. That is not true. The Conservatives gained more than 110 seats across Yorkshire, the North West and the North East. The Conservatives now hold more councils than Labour does in both Yorkshire and Lancashire. The North East remains a Labour stronghold (despite losing Wear Valley and nearly losing Derwentside) but that was the case even in 1983.
The exception to the strong Conservative advance is West Yorkshire, where the Party suffered a small net loss of seats, for a second year in a row, and where it is not close to outright control of any of the authorities. There are nine target seats in West Yorkshire, which makes the area crucial in the next general election. It is disappointing that the Party seems unable to make a breakthrough here, and instead is going backwards.
The Scottish Parliamentary results produced a net loss of one seat for the Conservatives, due to a fall in their share of the list vote. The Party did at least perform better than opinion polls had suggested, and maintained its vote share in the constituency section. It was encouraging to win Roxburgh, and come close to regaining Eastwood, and also to see all three constituency MSP’s returned with increased majorities. Overall, the Conservatives had 16 more councillors elected, although that was only due to changes in the electoral system. It cannot be denied that Scotland remains bleak for the Conservative Party. Quite why it is impossible for a centre right party to take at least 25% in Scotland is a mystery to me.
Wales was more encouraging, as the Party gained two constituencies, and pushed up its share of the vote by 2.5% at both constituency and list level. Indeed, were it not for UKIP intervention, the Party might well have won a further two constituencies. There is every prospect that the Party will recover the level of representation it had in 1992 at the next general election.
A good set of local results like this does not prove the Conservatives will win the next election, and it is a mistake to treat them as a glorified opinion poll. Local issues (such as waste collection) do matter, and governments tend to lose ground in local elections. However, parties are dependent on local councillors to keep going in most areas, and if a party’s local councillor base is destroyed, it becomes increasingly hard to do well at Parliamentary level.