The dust has settled from this year’s local elections. With over 8,000 council seats up for grabs in England, opposition parties were hoping to give Theresa May’s government a bloody nose prior to European elections later this month. In that alone, they have succeeded. The Conservatives lost just over 1,200 seats, the worst defeat for a governing party since 1995.
When it comes to the national conversation, local elections are all about managing expectations. Naturally, all parties try to downplay their prospects so as to later declare a shock victory, or to claim that their defeat was not quite as bad as everyone predicted. The Conservatives, rapidly tearing each other to bits over Brexit, knew that Thursday’s vote would be difficult. They set their expectations accordingly, with a net 800 loses assumed as the worst-case scenario. As we now know, the eventual scale of their rout turned out to be far greater.
The Conservatives had a very bad night, yet Labour’s was a disaster. Even as the government shed seats right, left and centre, few of them fell into Jeremy Corbyn’s pocket, with his party itself ultimately losing a net 63 seats. One could, of course, point out that this comes down to a mere 1/20th of Conservative loses, but that would be to miss the point completely. Ruling parties are almost always expected to lose seats in local elections, and the opposition should expect to make significant gains if it hopes to replace the government.
Not only has Labour lost seats, but it did so following what was already a very bad performance in 2015 (the last time all of these same councils were up for election). At the very least, it should have sought to recover the two hundred or so seats lost by Ed Milliband. Instead, as of yesterday evening, Jeremy Corbyn has lost over 400 councillors in his time as opposition leader. Foot, Kinnock, Hague, Howard and Milliband all performed significantly better, and none of them got to hold the keys to Downing Street.
The point is, Labour is not performing anywhere near as well as it should be if it hopes to win a parliamentary majority. The good news for them is that if a general election was held tomorrow and the results mirrored these local contests, analysis by the BBC suggests it would still emerge as the largest party. That said, I would caution against taking this too seriously, and against over-analysing local elections in general.
When it comes to future general election prospects, it makes far more sense to study changes in demographics as opposed to simply applying the observed swing to national-level constituencies. This is for the simple reason that relatively few people vote in local elections and those that do often vote differently than they would in a national contest. For instance, voters might trust Labour with the NHS but wouldn’t want to leave them in charge of bin collection. Or perhaps they just wanted to use a “second-order” contest to register a protest vote. Ultimately, if I were the Conservatives, the two things which would worry me the most are:
- The prospect of a Liberal Democrat revival in the South West to undo the vital gains which, in 2015, ensured David Cameron’s majority.
- The fact that the party lost over 1,000 seats in an election which the Brexit Party was not able to contest. The potential of Nigel Farage attracting enough Tory voters to enable Labour victories in dozens of marginal seats, even if the latter falls in vote share, is arguably the biggest threat facing the Conservatives right now.
(Also, the fact that the Brexit Party did not stand, with UKIP only contesting a fraction of the total seats, is another reason why using these local elections to predict anything else is probably a bad idea.)
The Liberal Democrats were clearly the biggest winners in terms of total seats gained, but it is worth noting that they got there from a very low starting point. The party lost close to two thousand councillors during the coalition years, and over one thousand in the same seats it contested this week. Regardless, at least when it comes to local government, the Lib Dems are clearly on their way to recovery. Thursday’s showing also helps position them as the strongest anti-Brexit party going into the European elections.
But the greatest success story here has to be the English Greens. Unlike Labour and the Lib Dems, they went into the vote defending what was already their best ever result in 2015. And not only did the party triple its number of councillors from four years ago, but it also won in places which are well outside of its traditional comfort zone, as diverse as Chichester and Darlington, and against both Conservative and Labour opposition.
So can we conclude that this week’s vote represents the revenge of the remainers and a rejection of Brexit? Not quite. The only major parties which made gains were explicitly anti-Brexit, that much is true. However, there are a number of issues that come with making such immediate generalisations. First of all, as mentioned above, the Brexit Party did not stand while UKIP, greatly diminished following the loss of Farage and its embrace of far-right personalities, did not put up candidates even in some strong leave areas such as Basildon.
Second, we cannot say with confidence where the vote for pro-EU parties came from, whether former Brexiteers actually defected in significant numbers, or whether they stayed at home, or voted for small parties and independents (who combined made nearly 300 gains). Neither do we know what the turnout looked like for each party, or for the two sides of the Brexit divide, or how much of an issue Brexit itself actually was.
Nevertheless, to claim that these results show that the public wants the two main parties to simply “get on with it”, as both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn have said, is quite absurd given who ended up being the primary beneficiaries here. Similarly, it is impossible to deny that anti-Brexit parties had a very good night in terms of both seats and vote share, and people who “want Brexit delivered” probably didn’t vote for them. It would also appear that Labour’s strategy of trying to appeal to both leavers and remainers has only succeeded in alienating both.
To describe Thursday’s vote as a rejection of Brexit would be a bit of a stretch. However, if there is a Brexit related lesson to be learned here, it is that leave voters can no longer be counted on to save the Tory party, and nor will remainers go out of their way for Labour.