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.