This is a local election for local people, there’s nothing for you here

For the first time since 1987 parties have had a warm-up match for the main contest in June. A delight for election anoraks, it’s the first time in thirty years local elections have been held before a general election. You are spoiling us Theresa.

But for those that aren’t anoraks, local elections and their results are difficult to decipher. This is made worse by the spin pushed out by politicians. The Tories are keen to avoid complacency.(“We didn’t win every single vote, there’s still a real threat of a coalition of chaos”). Labour want to show they still have a pulse (“I think we did better than expected, some pundits were predicting Jeremy Corbyn would be found dead this morning”). The Liberal Democrats use anything as indicators of a comeback (“We got a very good increase on our vote share in a ward on West Borsetshire Parish Council”). As for UKIP, well they gave up on spinning.

This was best exemplified by Jeremy Corbyn’s official statement that read “The results were mixed. We lost seats but we are closing the gap on the Conservatives.”

With that statement it’s hard to know what level of reality he’s operating on. They really weren’t mixed Jeremy. Unless of course he means some were awful, and some were bloody awful.

So in this post we try to cut through the spin and spell out what the results were, how they compare to the past and what it means for the general election.

THE VOTE SHARE

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“YES! We didn’t lose all of them!”

Every local election the BBC calculate what’s know as the ‘Projected National Share’ (PNS). This is not the same as totalling up all the different votes cast, but rather a modelling of the votes cast.

Different councils are elected at different times. For instance, this year most of the English contests were rural, Tory-leaning county councils where Labour do worse than in others.  A simple totting up of the votes would give the Tories a massive lead that would not be representative of the country as a whole.

Instead, key council wards (such as those in marginal seats, those with certain demographics, etc.) are analysed and the results there are applied across the country. As a modelling exercise it’s quite rough, so its numbers should never be regarded as concrete.

The PNS this year was (changes from 2015 General Election):

CON 38%(+1) LAB 27%(-3) LD 18%(+10) UKIP 5%(-8)

Polls overestimating the Tories?

You can see where Jeremy’s coming from in his ‘closing the gap’ analysis. An 11-point lead for the Tories is significantly lower than the 15+ leads in the polls. It would lead to only a small Tory majority of about 30.

But, that is one, ignoring it is actually a touch lower than Labour’s polling average and two, how doesn’t consider how different local election outcomes are to general election outcomes.

Turnout is much lower:

General elections roughly see turnout of 65%. For local elections it is about 30% and has been for years. Some council areas seeing much lower turnout than that.

The vast majority of voters simply don’t bother to turnout, and there’s no real evidence to suggest one party has higher turnout than others at General elections. With such a small electorate it’s difficult to construe it as particularly representative.

People vote for different reasons:

Despite what many of us think, voters aren’t stupid. They do realise that local government is responsible for local things. They don’t think their local ward councillor will be forming part of our Brexit negotiation team. This means they often put aside national considerations and clearly that helps Labour, given Corbyn’s absymal personal ratings.

Local issues are also fundamentally less partisan and more about competence. It’s difficult to articulate a Conservative philosophy on bins or a socialist position on park benches. Consequently, voters are more inclined to give smaller parties a go. Take the Lib Dems. As a party they have always articulated a strong emphasis on localism. This focus is rewarded at local elections when people want strong local campaigners but falls away at general elections when people want a national government:

Election Lib Dem Vote Share
1991 Local

22%

1992 General

18%(-4)

1996 Local

23%

1997 General

17%(-6)

2000 Local

26%

2001 General

18%(-8)

2004 Local

27%

2005 General

22%(-5)

2009 Local

28%

2010 General

23%(-5)

2014 Local

13%

2015 General

8%(-5)

Indeed, even in their disaster of 2015, in the local elections held on the same day the Lib Dems did better by two points.

The average decline in the Lib Dem vote share was five and a half percentage points in the general election following a local election. Applying to these figures would suggest the Lib Dems on 11.5% and that is roughly where they are polling. These votes must end up somewhere.

Governments tend to do badly:

There is a tendency amongst voters to use local elections as a means of exercising a protest vote against the Government. This is similar to the concept of the ‘mid-term blues’ in US congressional elections.

The local emphasis of these elections also means the Tories will also benefit less from the apparent popularity of Theresa May. Voters can still have their Labour councillor, but get May as Prime Minister come 8th June.

So Governments will do worse and often very poorly in local elections, only to see their vote share significantly recover come the general election. Similarly, the Opposition will see its vote share fall:

Election Government Vote Share Opposition Vote Share
1991 Local

35%

38%

1992 General

42%(+7)

34%(-4)

1996 Local

29%

43%

1997 General

31%(+2)

43%(nc)

2000 Local

30%

32%

2001 General

41%(+11)

32%(nc)

2004 Local

26%

37%

2005 General

35%(+9)

32%(-5)

2009 Local

23%

38%

2010 General

29%(+6)

36%(-2)

2014 Local

29%

31%

2015 General

37%(+8)

30%(-1)

The average rise in the Government’s vote share was seven points while contrast the average fall in the Opposition vote share was two points. Applying that to the PNS would see CON 45% LAB 25%. Again that is where the polls are roughly at and would see a majority of around 150.

These local elections were different in that they were held just a month before a general election. It makes sense that voters may be a bit more nationally minded as they head closer to a general election. However, in the last two occasions this occurred the same trend of Governments doing better and oppositions doing worse held true:

Election Government Vote Share Opposition Vote Share
1983 Local

39%

36%

1983 General

42%(+3)

28%(-8)

1987 Local

38%

32%

1987 General

42%(+4)

31%(-1)

One caveat is that these elections are also different in that they actually took place during a general election campaign. One might feasibly conclude that this means voters are voting on a more national basis than usual, so the changes in the vote share might be more limited.

Regardless, based on historical trends the a replication of the PNS would the very best Labour could hope for. For context, that would be the worst Labour performance in terms of vote share since 1918.

However, historical results suggest the Conservatives will do better and Labour even worse on 8th June. Grim.

Record breakers

Though it showed a tighter race than the polls, the PNS broke some quite extraordinary records in of itself.

The Conservatives enjoyed their best performance in the PNS since scoring 38% in 2009. It was Labour’s worst performance since 2010. Let’s remember that both were during the doldrums of the deeply unpopular Gordon Brown, the depths of a financial crisis, an expenses scandal and after 12-13 years of Labour Government.

It was also the best performance of any Governing party since Labour hit 38% as well in 1998 when Tony Blair was in his pomp. It was the best performance of the Conservatives in Government since 1992, when John Major got 46% shortly after his triumphant general election victory. Labour’s performance was the worst by the Opposition since projections of national vote shares began in 1980.

In terms of leads between first and second it was the highest since 2008, and the highest for a Governing party since 1992. It was equivalent to Thatcher’s lead during the 1982 local elections, during the height of her popularity in the midst of the Falklands War.

THE SEATS

labour-glasgow-local-elections-2017.jpg

“Please don’t make me redundant”

Taking a look at the scoreboard:

Party Councils (+/-) Councillors (+/-)
CON

27(+10)

1439 (+319)

LAB

2(-1)

418 (-142)

LD

0

312(-28)

UKIP

0

1(-143)

Admittedly, a large part of these election were English County Councils in Tory patches. Something of a ‘difficult away game’ for Labour. They also had a good time out when these were last up for election in 2013 in the way of seat gains. They coming from something of a high base so some losses were likely.

Regardless, these are a terrible set of results. In England, one in every four defending Labour councillors lost their seats. Oppositions should be gaining hundreds of seats in these elections, not losing them. Especially not seven years into a Conservative Government with challenges both foreign and domestic.

Where Labour lost ground was also deeply worrying for them. They saw significant losses in Cumbria, Nottinghamshire and Warwickshire often including local party leaders. They lost 19 councillors alone in Derbyshire alone. All these areas contain several marginal seats and these results look like they could be lost already.

Labour even managed lose a seat to UKIP.

The seat numbers also saw records. The Labour Party now have the enviable award of being the first Opposition to go backwards in three consecutive local elections. In terms of losses this was their worst result since 2007 which came after ten years of Blair. Conversely in terms of gains this was the Tories’ best result since 2007 and the best performance of a governing party since 1974 when the current system of local government was introduced.

UKIP’S EULOGY (AND MAYBE LABOUR’S TOO)

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“Who unlocked the door?”

On the brightside for Labour, their performance may have been bad, but it was not as disastrous as for UKIP. The Party lost every seat it was defending, and that gain from Labour saved it from a complete wipeout. Their vote share also more than halved.

The Conservatives were the main, if not sole beneficiary of this collapse. The Tories picked up the lion’s share of UKIP seats and UKIP switchers propelled them to further gains off Labour and the Lib Dems.

Based on opinion polls that was to be expected. Polls are showing roughly 50-60% of 2015 UKIP voters going to the Tories.

Labour have been pushing this line that their vote held up and it was UKIP’s collapse that propelled the Tories to victory. There are two problems with this.

First it ignores the drop in the Labour vote from an already very low base. They are down four points on Ed Miliband’s pretty poor performance of 2015. It’s a bit like saying yes we lost 6-0 but last time we lost 5-0 so we’ve arrested the decline. Many football mangers would love that excuse.

More importantly is this UKIP to Tory trend spells deep trouble for Labour. In 2015 UKIP drew almost half of their support from Labour.  There is also some evidence that UKIP voters in 2015, who voted Tory in 2010, were previously Labour voters before that. From that it’s apparent that UKIP has drawn roughly over half its support from traditionally Labour voters.

As much as it might pain the Labour Party to admit, it needs to get these UKIP voters back should it ever hope of coming close to Government.

Instead they are going over the Tories. and this will have its own immediate impact on Labour in this election. Should the level of switching replicate itself on election day, the Tories would gain 30-40 seats without any fall in the Labour vote. The gains might be amplified even further if UKIP continues its freefall and indeed in many seats they are struggling to even put up a candidate.

#LIBDEMFIGHTBACK… 

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“Well…”

All in all it wasn’t a great night for non-Tories. The Liberal Democrats did see a good increase in their vote share as reflected in the PNS, up ten points and that was their best result since 2010. However, as we know that vote share is likely to drop significantly at the general election. They also made a net loss of 28 seats and gained overall control of no councils.

Lib Dem figures did point to some good results in some of their old seats like Wells and Eastleig where they gained wards off longstanding Tory councillors. They also made good progress in seats like St. Albans. These has been seized upon as evidence of a concentrated fightback.

That’s really cherrypicking at its finest.

They failed to make any ground in some of their key targets, gaining no councillors in Cheltenham. They also lost ground to the Tories in Somerset and in Cornwall where they were hoping to take overall control. A hashtag the fightback may remain.

MAYORAL MATCH-UPS 

andy-burnham-425x265

“Jurassic Park!”

A new addition this year was the election of six new ‘Metro Mayors‘ in England. These were fought use the preferential system of Supplementary Vote, a slight variation of the Alternative Vote system.

There were a lot of fears about there being pitiful turnout for these contests. It wasn’t great, but it was fairly respectable at around 30% on average. By way of comparison, that’s about the same as for the first London Mayoral contest.

Corbyn pointed to Labour’s success in Manchester and Liverpool as evidence of Labour’s fight. They did win massively here, winning 63% and 60% respectively. In 2015, Labour won 46% of the vote of the constituencies that made up the Manchester contest, so Andy Burnham did put in a cracking turn.

But this deep into Labour territory, and with a big name like Burnham it’s no surprise they did so well in Manchester. Winning these was Labour’s electoral equivalent of tying their own shoelaces.

In other contests there was grim news for Labour. They lost the West Midlands contest to the Tories. The region covers several marginal seats so that doesn’t mean good news for their general election prospects. More concerning for them was their loss in the Tees Valley. Containing areas like Middlesbrough this should have been a happy hunting ground for them.

There was also further bad news for the Lib Dems. They held high hopes for the West of England, which contains Bath, one of their top target seats. Not only did they lose here, but they even managed to come third behind Labour.

WHAT’S NEXT?

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“Lads, we’re several goals down, but it’s a game of two halves.”

 

As an indicator, these spell bad news for everyone but the Tories who have truly murdered UKIP, dismembered its corpse and thrown it down a disused quarry. History suggests the Tory vote will go higher, whilst Labour are likely to go backwards. The Lib Dems have also been left scrabbling for any evidence of a comeback.

The results themselves will also have some impact. It’s another nail in the coffin of Labour being a credible threat, though the Tories will play up their smaller PNS share to help drive up their voters’ turnout.

The results will be of no help to many within Labour’s already subterranean levels of morale. You need a lot of that to bother campaigning and indeed to actually vote.

The local elections showed there were some interesting contests beyond England. We often forget we are a country of four nations, each with their own political nuances and issues. So we’ll be taking a look at the election outside England, first with a trip across Offa’s Dyke. 

 

 

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2 thoughts on “This is a local election for local people, there’s nothing for you here

  1. Pingback: Feed me till I want no more: an electoral guide for Wales | Election essentials

  2. Pingback: Tak’ the High Road: an electoral guide to Scotland | Election essentials

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