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Local elections 2012: what will the gains and losses figures mean?

Posted on 02 May 2012 by admin

 

 How should we assess the local election results when we have a sense of things on Friday morning? The gains/ losses figures are the most popular measure as far as the media is concerned, because perhaps the best and most comparable measure – National Equivalent Vote share – is complex to calculate and can be worked out in more ways than one.

Benchmarks for local election gains and losses vary year by year because:

  • Different numbers of seats are available each year; for instance there were 4,104 seats in the 2008 locals (the baseline for 2012) and over 10,000 in the big year for English local elections that is the 2007/11 year of the cycle. 2012 is a fairly small year for seat numbers, so that massive gains and losses like Labour’s haul of around 2000 gains in 1995 are impossible.
  • Different sorts of area are contested in different years – Scotland and Wales this year, other years England only, and in general terms rural England in 2011 and 2013, and urban England in 2011 and 2012.
  • Different starting points. This year’s starting point (except in Scotland) is 2008, which was a very good local election year for the Conservatives. Labour therefore have to win a biggish number of seats to be respectable, and the Conservatives can afford to shed a number of seats won at their high water mark.
  • Electoral system  – the seats up in 2011 (and 2014 in London boroughs) will tend to magnify changes, because the multi-member first past the post system often involves large turnovers of seats if there is a swing. The STV PR system used in Scotland will produce smaller changes for a given swing.
  • Expectation management. This works in a couple of ways. The most obvious is that parties will try to under-claim their expected gains or exaggerate potential losses, to make the results on the day look ‘better than expected’. The more subtle is that they are affected by opinion polls and the general climate. A party that is, say, 10 points ahead in the national polls but whose local results are in line with a 5-point lead may be said to have had a ‘disappointing’ set of results, even though they are ‘objectively’ better than those of a party that is level in the polls but gets a two point lead on the local result and claims a triumph.

Figures for gains and losses are fuzzy around the edges, for several reasons.

They are affected by a few or more councils each year having boundary changes and therefore not being comparable with past years (this year: Hartlepool, Rugby, Daventry, Broxbourne) and affecting the overall party numbers.

Another factor is by-elections; some of the changes, particularly in a cycle like 2008/12 when there has been a big change in political climate, will have been discounted because the seats have already changed hands in by-elections. Take Walsall, for instance, where two wards that were Conservative in 2008 have already been won by Labour in by-elections. There are also defections, which tend to pattern wider political trends and can be important in some individual authorities – for instance the collapse of the Liberal Democrats in Rochdale or the Conservative split in Sefton. In some such cases a party can make apparent ‘gains’ by just recapturing seats from defectors. Another complication is sometimes that by-elections run concurrently with the local elections. In Bolton for instance there is a triple vacancy in a safe Conservative area, Bradshaw, giving the Conservatives an apparent extra 2 seats.

Seat totals are also skewed against urban England. The number of electors in each seat is much smaller in rural and suburban authorities, and seats are particularly small in the most rural areas. In terms of seats coming up in 2012, Claverdon ward (Stratford on Avon DC, Warwickshire) with fewer than 2,000 electors is weighted the same as over 20,000 in some Birmingham wards. A party doing differentially well in big cities and poorly in smaller towns and rural areas (as Labour did in 2011) will find its seat gains looking unflattering.

With all these warnings, the starting point needs to be the previous set of local elections in England and Wales in 2008. This was a very good Conservative year and a Labour disaster (national equivalent vote Conservative 43 per cent, Labour 24 per cent and Lib Dem 23 per cent). The Conservatives gained 300 seats and Labour lost 434. Reversing these figures would more or less restore the position that existed in 2004. Allowing for the fact that there are fewer seats available (large councils in Cheshire and Durham were contested in 2008), by-elections, and a possible slippage in Scotland, a Labour gain overall of around 400 would be something like a repeat of 2004. Now this would be a poor result. The local elections in 2004 were not a good year for Labour, with urban voters in particular giving the party a ‘kicking’ over the Iraq war and general ennui, and the Tories picking up in a number of marginals like Tamworth and Swindon. It was not a drubbing like 2008, but it was still a defeat. Translated into a national vote share, the Conservatives were ahead with 37 per cent, Lib Dems on 27 per cent and Labour on 26 per cent.

So, a net Labour gain of fewer than 400 seats is bad, particularly as a repeat of the 2011 local elections would mean a net gain of over 250 seats in the 36 metropolitan boroughs alone, another 70 in the 16 comparable unitary authorities, and about another 130 (very approximately) in comparable district councils. Fewer than 400 net gains in England would suggest slippage from 2011 (Labour can expect to make more gains in Wales than losses suffered in Scotland).

A ‘par’ result for Labour would involve doing a bit better than 2011 in urban England, consistent with a clear (but not landslide) lead over the Conservatives in national vote share, and picking up considerably in Wales while slipping a bit in Scotland. Perhaps about 100 gains in Wales, 500 in England, and 30 losses in Scotland, gives us a net gain of 570. (Having examined the local detail, I have revised this down a bit).

Translating recent trends in by-elections and polls, the leading experts in local elections, Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher of Plymouth University, project about 700 Labour gains which feels a bit high. Anything from 550 to 700 should probably be regarded as more or less par.

Over 700 is therefore extremely good for Labour. The party cannot exceed this total much, because its ability to win seats is already ‘maxed out’ in many areas on the basis of the 2011 results (e.g. Manchester) or would be on a modest swing from 2011, and there are simply not all that many seats available. Also bear in mind the caveats about seats that have already switched in by-elections.

The Conservative picture is a mirror image of Labour’s. They must expect losses to Labour, and unlike in 2011 there will not be many places where they can make compensating gains from Liberal Democrats and Independents.

A repeat of 2011 in England would involve net Conservative losses of the order of 180-200 seats. They should hold reasonably steady in Scotland, and lose a bit in Wales – perhaps 30 seats? A net loss of 200 must be accounted a success for the Conservatives if they manage it, given the poor context for the 2012 elections.

A par result would be a bit worse than this (300 odd), and a genuinely bad result would be something like 400 down.

The Liberal Democrats must expect to lose, possibly very severely. A repeat of 2011 would involve around 280 losses in England, perhaps 30 in Wales and something of a caning in Scotland, losing around half of their 166 seats from 2007. This adds up to a little short of 500 for the expected level of losses, assuming that they are pretty much where they were in May 2011. If they have recovered a bit since then, though local activism or a hint of recovery in the national position, they will do better. Because a repeat of 2011 would put them at rock bottom in many areas (the reverse phenomenon to Labour being maxed out in the big cities), there is not a lot of downside risk for the Lib Dems – the main forecast is pretty brutal. Much worse than this and they are still losing support compared to 2011.

 

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LOCAL ELECTIONS 2012

Posted on 10 April 2012 by admin

The big contest, looming over the rest of the electoral landscape this May, is the election for Mayor of London. The Mayoralty is powerful, London is politically marginal territory, polls so far suggest that the race will be close and as in 2008 Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson are both strong personalities, so there is reason even apart from the media’s metropolitan bias to concentrate on this election. It is very difficult to call, and may come down to events during the London campaign. Johnson is a lot more viable as a candidate in London than a generic Conservative – if it were purely about national party support, Labour would walk the election because they have a 16-point lead over the Tories. Labour’s general strength in London may show through more in the Assembly elections, where Labour should become the largest party for the first time in the Assembly’s history. This has few consequences for policy, because the Mayor decides, but Labour would find it particularly satisfying to knock out Brian Coleman in Barnet & Camden. The BNP won an Assembly seat in 2008 but are unlikely to do so this year; the Greens and Lib Dems should get representation. (Update 4/2012: UKIP also stands a good chance of qualifying for a list seat).

The London contest might attract most of the attention a large proportion of the rest of the country will also have local elections. Every seat in Scotland and Wales (except for the Isle of Anglesey) is up for election, as are a third of the seats in each of the 36 metropolitan boroughs and some unitary and district councils, mostly in the larger urban areas. A few councils will have half or all of their members being elected this year – the English local election calendar is not straightforward.

When assessing gains and losses in local elections, it is important to look at the areas where the elections will happen, and the political climate last time the seats were contested. The seats this time are more urban than in 2011, when Labour did well in the cities but did not make much of an impact in suburban and rural areas. The political climate in 2008 was catastrophic for Labour and it was the peak Conservative performance in any recent set of local elections. Labour should be winning back fairly large numbers of seats.

Opinion poll ratings at the time of recent local elections

% 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012
Con 37 44 40 36 36 36 (33)
Lab 32 26 24 29 41 41 (42)
LD 18 17 18 23 10 12 (8)
Others 14 13 19 12 13 11 (17)

 (2012 column: first numbers March, second YouGov 5 April)

National equivalent vote share in local elections

% 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011
Con 40 43 35 37 38
Lab 26 24 22 30 37
LD 24 23 25 24 16
Others 19 10 18 10 9

 

Looking at the current opinion polls (March), if there is not a change in public opinion between now and early May, the results overall will be pretty similar to 2011. In councils where there are elections in both years, this will be a useful benchmark for the performance of the parties.  Even a repeat of 2011 means a swing of 9 per cent from Conservative to Labour and 10 per cent from Lib Dem to Labour, and yield a haul of seats and councils controlled. Labour lost 434 seats in 2008. Recovering these means getting back to where Labour was in 2004, which was itself a pretty poor year. Three hundred of them would fall if Labour repeated its 2011 performance in the metropolitan boroughs alone, so Labour sights should be set higher than that – perhaps a net gain of 700 would be ‘par’.

In some places Labour victory is almost inevitable. In Harlow, for instance, the Conservatives have a majority of 1, a legacy from their extraordinary performance in 2008 when they won every single seat in the town (4/2012 correction: while Labour won no seats in 2008, there were two Lib Dems as well as the Conservatives, although one has subsequently died and one has defected to Labour). Even a historically poor Labour showing in 2012, as long as it is even slightly better than 2008, will do to win control. The task is harder than this in several other councils, but Labour should be winning control in Thurrock, Plymouth, Southampton, Exeter, Reading and perhaps Norwich, creating some satisfying red splodges on the map of southern and eastern England. The Southampton election is particularly interesting because it is currently run by a particularly right wing pro-cuts Tory council. Labour gained a swathe of councils in the metropolitan areas of the midlands and north in 2010 and 2011, but a few more low-hanging fruit should fall from the tree in Birmingham, Bradford, Wirral and perhaps Walsall. The hard tests, that would indicate Labour advancing significantly since 2011, are Swindon, Dudley and Cardiff. Swindon and Dudley are two party straight fights with the Conservatives in areas with marginal and volatile parliamentary seats, where the Tory vote held up reasonably well in 2011. Cardiff is more of a contest with the Lib Dems, who should put up more resistance there than one can expect in the northern cities where they are likely to be massacred for a second year.

The local elections in Scotland are different for three reasons. The simplest is that these seats were last contested in 2007, rather than 2008. The electoral system is also different – Scotland has the Single Transferable Vote (STV) proportional system for its local elections. The third reason is the political context, in which the SNP dominates Scottish politics and this set of results will be seen more of a test of the SNP’s aspirations for independence than Labour’s UK-wide performance. A repeat of the SNP landslide in the 2011 Holyrood elections would see the nationalists controlling most councils in Scotland even under PR. This is unlikely, but it seems likely that the SNP will gain ground, principally at the expense of the Lib Dems but also to some extent Labour and Independents. The big battleground is Glasgow, where the SNP will try to demolish the last bastion of the Scottish Labour establishment. Most people seem to think that Labour will lose outright control.

(From Progress magazine, April 2012)

 

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The Inverclyde by-election: business as usual for Scottish voters

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The Inverclyde by-election: business as usual for Scottish voters

Posted on 01 July 2011 by admin

Labour’s result in the Inverclyde by-election (30 June 2011) was an impressive electoral performance, particularly coming so soon after Scottish Labour’s humiliation at the hands of the SNP in the Scottish Parliament elections in May. The principal Scottish Parliament constituency in the area, Greenock & Inverclyde, saw Labour squeak to a 511-vote majority over the SNP in the election in May, while the SNP won the other local constituency (Renfrewshire North and West). The result in the area covered by the Inverclyde Westminster seat was probably nearly a tie between Labour and SNP.  For Labour to win by 5,838 votes (20.8 per cent) in June marks a considerable recovery.

Many observers, myself included, had expected a much closer result than this or perhaps an SNP victory, and Labour had been pessimistic during the campaign. This was as much because of the historical pattern than the timing of the by-election in the afterglow of the SNP’s sweeping Holyrood victory. By-elections in working class, hitherto ‘safe’ Labour seats in Scotland tend to become straight contests between Labour and the SNP, and the SNP enjoys a large swing. This has happened almost regardless of the political climate. Some huge swings have happened despite Labour generally riding high at the time (Monklands East, Hamilton South), as well as at low ebbs (Glasgow East). The very biggest in the last 30 years, Glasgow Govan in 1988, came when Labour was in a disheartened and divided condition a year after it did well in Scotland despite losing the election nationally. Inverclyde therefore should be particularly pleasing for Labour and Ed Miliband.

The Liberal Democrat vote in Inverclyde was humiliatingly low, but it was part of the general pattern of collapse where an election becomes a two-way contest between Labour and the SNP. With the exception of Paisley South in 1997 (and even more Dunfermline & West Fife in 2006 when the Lib Dems started a clear second to Labour), the party loses its deposit in these circumstances.  Inverclyde is worse than most of them for the party because it is the only place where the Lib Dems had much of a presence beforehand. They controlled the local authority before 2007, and Greenock was a very rare place with a working-class Liberal history. They ran Labour fairly close in 1970, despite Menzies Campbell withdrawing as candidate because the election clashed with his wedding. In 1983 a Liberal candidate (A.J. Blair) also polled well, with over 36 per cent of the vote.

Inverclyde illustrates two facts about Scottish voters. They favour left-of-centre government, and they are pragmatic and intelligent about how they achieve it. Apparently enormous electoral changes like Labour’s victory in 2010 and the SNP landslide in 2011 are reflections of these basic attitudes, and Inverclyde confirms that Scots’ voting choices are very dependent on the context. The Westminster village seems to have decided that Labour is doing badly in opposition, but voters in Inverclyde clearly do not think so – if they did, they would have delivered a shock to the system like the voters of Govan did in 1988. Labour, in Scotland and in Westminster, can take a great deal of comfort from the result – but would be foolish to conclude from it that the voters are having second thoughts about their emphatic support for the SNP’s Scottish government.

Link to original post at Democratic Audit Blog

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