Tag Archive | "local election results"

Cold comfort (4 May 2008)

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Cold comfort (4 May 2008)

Posted on 04 May 2008 by admin

Local elections 08: Just how bad were these local election results for Labour? Very. Gordon Brown may survive until 2010, but his party is in real danger

Outside London, in urban England, the election results for Labour were an utter disaster. The dimensions of this defeat have so far escaped much analysis because of the impact of Johnson’s victory. In 2006 and 2007 Labour were getting hammered in the south and the suburbs, but the vote was holding up in the cities and working class towns in the north, and even recovering noticeably from the Iraq-blighted elections of 2004. Those local results looked like a post-New Labour political geography. Elections seemed to be reverting to the previous Two Nations pattern of the Thatcher years. The 2008 elections, however, are different.

The regional differences were less apparent, with a few scattered examples of Labour holding or gaining ground in the south, such as in Hastings and Slough, and some epic collapses in the north. Some of the local detail is almost unbelievably bad for Labour. What is one to say when the Conservatives pull ahead in Rother Valley, of all places? The Tories showed considerable strength in smaller working class towns around Manchester. While their gain in ever-marginal Bury attracted some attention, the rise in their share of the vote in places such as Failsworth, Swinton and Eccles was up since their relatively good results in 2007. This was not a feat of targeting, picking off a couple of vulnerable northern councils as in 2007, but a broad increase in popularity in places where the Conservatives have been nearly absent for decades.

On the face of it, the core cities looked exempt from the trend, with no Conservatives on the councils of Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield or Newcastle, although even in these dead zones the Conservative vote improved noticeably on last year.

Local elections, while basically determined by the national trend, do have local variations and in some areas there were movements of opinion in 2008 that compensated for unusual electoral behaviour four years ago. For instance, the Conservatives won Coventry a bit ahead of the curve in 2003, and lost ground this time as their local administration grew stale. But in other places, like Reading and Wolverhampton, the Labour vote that had been resilient in 2004 collapsed in 2008. The Conservatives were 13 points clear of Labour in the heavily working class Wolverhampton North East constituency, a seat that the Tories have only ever won once, in 1987. The Tories even won Heath Town ward, a poor, troubled and much-redeveloped area of the city.

Labour can find very little consolation in these elections, except – oddly – at the scene of the most painful defeat, London. Ken Livingstone gave Labour voters something to fight for, and the party’s vote stood up reasonably well in inner London. Labour even won an extra seat on the London Assembly. But this is cold comfort indeed.

Comparisons have already been made between these local elections and the wipeout Labour suffered in 1968. In some ways, Labour’s defeat in 2008 was worse because the party’s share of the vote was lower, but in other ways it was less drastic. In 1968 anti-Labour voters lined up behind the Conservatives, with the result that the Tories won nearly everything that year. In 2008 multi-party politics is a reality in many local authorities, and Labour retained seats even with a low share of the vote because of split opposition. The Conservatives are nowhere near as dominant in local government as they were in the late 1960s or even the late 1970s, when they had a majority in Merseyside. Their national share of the vote, and lead over Labour, are smaller than in 1968, but to win around 44% in a multi party system is still an impressive accomplishment, reminiscent of Labour’s sweeping triumphs in 1995 and 1996.

Historical comparisons naturally lead to speculation about what the 2008 elections might mean for the general election, due before mid-2010. In 1968, 1977 and 1995, the governing party at the wrong end of the landslide went on to lose the general election. However, in 1968-70 and 1977-79, if not in 1995-97, the defeat was not a foregone conclusion and there were times when re-election even looked likely.

Another point of comparison is the position of the prime minister. Traumatic defeats in 1968 and 1995 led to bouts of speculation and conspiracy aimed against Harold Wilson and John Major respectively, although both survived. Jim Callaghan came out of his 1977 drubbing almost unscathed because he was personally popular, and could both hold the Labour party together and retain the confidence of the Liberals in a finely balanced House of Commons.

Parties, and prime ministers, can ride out local election landslides, but the long term effects are insidious. Parties become demoralised and organisation decays. The emergence of a new political landscape confuses election planning. In 1970 and 1979 Labour lost seats that had previously been considered safe, and the same thing happened on an even greater scale in 1997 to the Conservatives. The logic of general election campaigning insists that Labour prioritise seats where the party’s presence has been reduced almost to vanishing point in local elections, such as Portsmouth North and Harlow – but in such circumstances, how is effective local campaigning possible?

The risk, as the Conservatives discovered, is that one misdirects resources by defending lost causes (like Mitcham and Morden, which some Tories convinced themselves even on the election night of 1997 had been held), while suffering enormous swings and losing seats in areas that had not seemed to be in much danger. This year’s local elections saw a dam break. When that happens, the floods can reach the most unexpected corners, and may never recede to their previous levels.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/may/04/coldcomfort1

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The scale of the swing bodes ill for Labour (2 May 2008)

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The scale of the swing bodes ill for Labour (2 May 2008)

Posted on 02 May 2008 by admin

Despite some isolated disappointments, the Conservatives have scored staggering successes, writes Lewis Baston

Local election results always produce a mixed picture; there will be councils where local factors produce swings that go against the national pattern.

The Conservatives should have regained Worcester, which they only lost last year in a byelection that took place at the brief high tide of enthusiasm for Brown’s Labour last autumn, but they did not.

They might lose Coventry. But these seem likely to be only small, isolated disappointments in a generally very strong Conservative performance.

They are also balanced up by some staggering local Tory successes. Their gains in Harlow were so stunning that they took overall control of the council for the first time ever, and Labour did not win a single ward in what had been until recently an old Labour (in every sense) municipal stronghold.

But the most bizarre result so far seems to have taken place in Southampton, which was at the furthest edge of possibility for the Tories. They made eight gains and took control in a bitter and unpleasant election campaign, following the formation of a Labour-Lib Dem coalition at the budget vote in the spring.

The city will now have two years of Tory control and will be an experiment in hard-right populism. We shall see whether the tide goes out as quickly as it came in.

In most of the country the pattern seems to be modest Conservative advance from the 2004 baseline, which is a highly creditable overall performance.

They should have little difficulty in passing the benchmark of 200 net gains by the time the final result comes in tomorrow afternoon.

Labour can forget about claiming much comfort, let alone satisfaction, from the English local elections, and the scale of the swing bodes ill for London.

If net losses go much below 200 seats, and Livingstone loses London, that is a recipe for a normal-sized post-election panic.

But the horrific detail in places like Harlow and Southampton almost pales besides the near-disaster in County Durham.

Labour looks like having squeezed out a small majority in this council, which has been a fortress since 1919 – with 62 Labour seats, 52 opposition seats and 12 still to declare. When Durham trembles on the brink, it is a real disaster.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2008/may/02/localgovernment.labour

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How low can they go? (2 May 2006)

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How low can they go? (2 May 2006)

Posted on 02 May 2006 by admin

A Labour rout on Thursday may owe more to the disillusion of its voters than a surge to the opposition. The thing to watch for is turnout.

Labour councillors nervously anticipating Thursday’s local elections must wonder how much harder the government could work to mess things up for them. One probably has to look back to 1968 to find a parallel. Devaluation, financial crisis, tax rises, spending cuts, Cabinet resignations and lurid press coverage of immigration and Enoch Powell’s rivers of blood were bad enough, but just before polling day the government put up NHS charges (despite having promised not to). The result was a massacre at the polls, with nearly 800 losses in London alone and many cities including Birmingham where Labour won not a single seat.

Local election results tend to go consistently against the party nationally in power, particularly when the government is a Labour government. Even during the honeymoon period of the 1998 local elections, the Labour lead was lower than in the 1997 general election or in the national polls. There is always a turnout differential that makes it difficult to get Labour supporters to the local polls while Labour hold office nationally even at the best of times. These are self-evidently not the best of times. Labour must expect a bad result, but how bad?

Assessing what is a reasonable benchmark for success or disaster is difficult and bedevilled both by the complexities of local elections and the expectations management practised by all the parties. Election night will see spin in its purest form, as each party claims to have out-performed what could reasonably be expected of it. Those with long memories will recall 1990, when Conservative success in Wandsworth and Westminster distracted attention from poor national results, and 1996 when the Tory disaster wasn’t quite as complete as the year before.

The most consequential measure of performance is in terms of council control. This matters because it gives (or takes away) a party’s ability to put policies into practice at a local level. Because every seat in London is up for election, this is where the most dramatic changes will take place. Labour did well from the electoral system in 2002 (the last time the seats were fought), winning 15 boroughs (including 4 where the party actually polled fewer votes than the Conservatives). Even before last week, their chances of holding Bexley and Hammersmith & Fulham looked vanishingly small, and it would be no surprise if Croydon and Merton also flipped to the Conservatives. Labour’s vote has eroded both in ethnically mixed areas and liberal middle class areas to the Lib Dems and others, and the loss of at least Brent (and quite possibly Hounslow, Camden and Tower Hamlets) is likely. If any of these boroughs survive under Labour control, it is a tribute to the local councillors’ management of services rather than an endorsement of the government’s recent record. It would be a less expected, and very serious, blow if any of Haringey, Ealing or Lewisham fell.

The Conservatives will be hoping to pick up the four boroughs from Labour, and also take another three where they didn’t quite make it in 2002 (Harrow, Havering and Hillingdon). There is also an interesting confrontation with the Lib Dems in three middle class south-west London boroughs – Kingston and Sutton are run by the Lib Dems and Richmond by the Conservatives, but there is a lively contest in all three. If the Lib Dems carry off Richmond and defend the other two, they will gain in confidence about repelling the electoral challenge of David Cameron’s liberal conservatism.

Outside London, fewer changes are likely – Labour did so badly in 2004 that even unexpectedly good results would not be enough to recapture power in cities such as Newcastle, Leeds and Birmingham. Labour control of Derby and Newcastle-under-Lyme hangs by a thread, but it would take a real meltdown to lose Manchester.

The measure of party performance that will probably attract most attention is the net Labour loss of seats over the night. In assessing what this might be, it is important to disentangle the different starting points. If Labour were to do pretty much as badly as in 2004, which was a rotten local election year for the party, the party would lose something of the order of 350 seats. This would be composed of no change in the metropolitan boroughs (because these seats were last contested in 2004) and substantial losses in the areas last fought in 2002. There was a swing of 5 or 6% away from Labour in the metropolitan boroughs between 2002 and 2004, and if all that happens is that the London boroughs catch up with this movement London alone would produce a loss of about 200 Labour seats. Adding in the seats in the district and unitary authorities which Labour are defending from 2002 and comparison with results in 2004 is possible, Labour would lose 131 more seats. Labour losses of 300-350 seats would therefore signal an overall result on a par with 2004.

Although 2004 was a bad result for Labour, the party went on to win a general election with a perfectly adequate majority only 11 months later. In the current circumstances, a similar result should be the occasion for a certain amount of relief and it certainly wouldn’t count as “meltdown”. Given the recent hellish run of bad publicity for the government, something a little worse than 2004 should be expected – perhaps total losses around the 420 mark. Anything much over that would be a sign that Labour’s position is a lot worse than in any other set of local elections under this government, and put its future into question.

The gains are unlikely to all be in one direction – the Conservatives will have to share the spoils with the Lib Dems and a host of others – Greens, Ukip, the BNP, independents and a variety of local and single-issue parties. If the Conservatives are more than 250 up, they will have done well.

The better measure of how well or badly the parties are doing nationally is their share of the vote. One indicator of this is the national equivalent vote share projection that the broadcasters will do on election night, but that is at best approximate and trends may be distorted by the dominance of London and other urban areas in this round of elections. Labour came third in this measure in 2004 and must be braced to do so again.

However, the detailed voting numbers are more interesting and reliable. In every election in London since 1994 – for parliament, boroughs, mayor, Europe and Assembly – the Conservatives have been more or less flatlining on around 30% and have varied only between 27% (2004 Euro election) and 34% (2002 London boroughs). If the Conservatives break out of this range into the high 30s, they can claim to be making real progress in the capital, and if they get over 40% in London they are entitled to savour a triumph. Labour’s vote, on the other hand, has fluctuated wildly – although third place, or anything under 25%, would be bad news.

Although the metropolitan boroughs are unlikely to see much drama in terms of seats and councils changing hands, the share of the vote will be interesting. The Conservative share has been incredibly stable in these elections, holding steady at 26% in every set of borough elections since 1998 with the exception of William Hague’s best year, 2000, when they won 31%. If the Conservatives are still stuck on 26%, this would be a disappointing result for Cameron, but anything above 30% would be pretty good, as would overtaking Labour. It is also possible, but a long shot, that the Lib Dems could win the largest share of the vote in the metropolitan authorities this year – the results in 2004 had Labour on only 33% and both Lib Dems and Conservatives on 26%.

There are several notes of caution to enter about interpreting local elections. One is that local issues do matter, and seem to be increasing in importance in recent years. Some councils (such as Conservative Wandsworth) have a good relationship with their electorates and seem insulated from national trends. Others fall foul of local issues and suffer the consequences, as the Plymouth Conservatives did in 2003 when they lost badly despite a favourable national trend.

The decay of the traditional system is more advanced locally than nationally. The Lib Dems have long capitalised on local issues and done better than expected in local elections, even in areas such as Southampton that tend to be Lab-Con fights at general elections. Smaller parties and independents can also expect to do well. In some areas local politics has become bewilderingly plural, for instance in Kirklees in Yorkshire where no party won more than 25% of the vote in 2004.

Variations in local election turnout can be important. A Labour rout on Thursday may owe more to the disillusion and alienation of Labour voters than any great surge to the opposition. If turnout drops significantly from the 33% reached in urban areas in 2002, it is questionable how significant the gains of the other parties will turn out to be. If, however, turnout is in the high 30s and Labour are trounced, then the government should be seriously worried about a real voter revolt.

The multi-party nature of modern politics will save Labour from a 1968-style wipe-out even if the party’s vote is just as low. Back then, voters who turned against Labour went by default to the Conservatives, but now there is more choice for the disaffected and local elections are rarely as uniform. There may be a few crumbs of comfort for Labour in the actual results – but, ironically, the party has probably got the national spin wrong. As noted in the Guardian today: “If Mr Blair loses more than 200 seats nationally he will be in serious trouble.” If he loses only 200, he’s probably actually in better shape with the voters than he was two years ago.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2006/may/02/howlowcantheygo

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