- Conservatives finished 11 points ahead of Labour nationally, gaining more than 550 seats
- UKIP wiped-out, losing all but 1 seat in those contested
- Labour lose more than 300 seats
- Lib Dem vote share increases but they still lose 28 seats
Local elections are more often than not about which candidate is the strongest opponent to the new application for a caravan park on the village’s recreation ground, landfill site or wind turbine. , However, falling as close as it does to a general election, this local campaign more than others had a much greater national feel to it; the battle between ‘strong and stable’ Theresa May and the ‘coalition of chaos’.
As a candidate in last week’s council elections, I’m very aware that people vote in mysterious ways. Smaller parties often do better at a local level. Voters aren’t usually thinking about whether to vote for the party they want to see in Government, they are more focused on who best stands up for their interests in their local area. There are a number of reasons why local election voting patterns are rarely mirrored in the parliamentary results.
Despite being bombarded by leaflets over the past few weeks, you have to remember that local elections do not take place all over the country in one go. So, taking council elections at face value and using them to predict national election results is pretty widely recognised to be, at best, a crude proxy, at worst downright lazy political analysis.
As a result of the local elections, the BBC's ‘Projected National Share’ makes a country wide prediction between now and 8th June. It sits at 38% for the Tories, 27% for Labour, 18% for the Lib Dems and just 5% for UKIP; closer than the polls are suggesting but still pointing to a significant win for the Tories.
But what else can we tell from this May’s local elections?
LET’S START WITH THE 1980s
The last time the Tories had a leader with such a high approval rating they won consecutive elections with landslide victories. It just so happens that it was also the last time a local election took place so close to a general election without sharing the same day.
In both 1983 and 1987, Conservative local election results were moderately successful, but in the general election shortly afterwards they crushed Labour.
This time around the Tories finished 11 points ahead nationally which for this stage in the election cycle can be considered a huge success. Governing parties tend to lose favour with the electorate over time, and we’ve had Conservative leadership for seven years now which means they should be due some dissent. The fact we’re not seeing that this time hints at a painful defeat for Labour in June. However, grasping around for some good news for Labour, at local level you see much less tactical voting, which will play a much stronger role in the national poll to come.
Tactical voting isn’t a new idea but it’s certainly enjoying renewed prominence in the lead up to this election. Social media is awash with websites and spreadsheets detailing how to ‘unite against the Tories’. Some reports have claimed that one third of people are considering tactical voting at the general election, this could mitigate the indications of a significant Conservative victory which emerged from the local elections.
But ultimately, ‘party ego’ usually gets in the way. Green candidates are standing aside to give Labour and the Lib Dems a better chance, but as of yet Labour and Lib Dems (centrally at least) have failed to do the same. Although parties may never formally agree on this, their voters will feel differently. Only 1.5% of the population are members of political parties, the vast majority of voters are looking at values not purely at tribal loyalty. This rejection of partisan dividing lines is reiterated by the growth of new grassroots organisations like More United who aim to help progressive candidates from across parties become elected.
People’s ability to look past party lines and vote tactically for who they consider the best candidate has worked in the past in individual constituencies. Whether it works en mass in this election remains to be seen.
Even with a few Mayoral wins, on the whole Labour took a battering at the ballot box last week. Their usual support shrunk in what many considered a real temperature check on Labour’s leadership. Jeremy Corbyn’s response was “we lost seats but we are closing the gap on the Conservatives”, going on to insist that Labour could still win the general election, despite it being a “challenge on a historic scale”.
To most people, including much of the Labour party, this is blind optimism. However, Jeremy Corbyn does have appeal for younger voters. And, yes historically younger people don’t turn out to vote in force, especially at local election level, but a question mark hangs over possible bucks in electoral trends.
As a person in their 20s, I felt let down by my generation last June. 75% of young people wanted to remain in the EU but only 36% of them turned out to vote. The apathy of young people has left them with a future that the majority admit they didn’t want. Should young people have been shocked into registering their new-found discontent and putting two fingers up to a hard Brexit, then Corbyn could receive a substantial proportion of unaccounted votes that didn’t show for the locals, despite his weak EU stance.
This leads us to the question of the role of the Brexit debate – in both last week’s local elections and next month’s general.
THE CLEVERLY CONSTRUCTED, OR PERFECT COINCIDENCE?
Since she assumed the leadership, Theresa May’s rhetoric has sounded like a clarion call to those to the right of her party (UKIP) to return home – grammar schools, hard line on Brexit and a rejection of “the citizens of nowhere”. This had the desired effect. UKIP’s vote share collapsed from 22% to less than 5% leaving them with just one seat. Interestingly this seat was gained from Labour, leaving all of us wondering if voting UKIP really is the gateway drug to voting Tory, or in other words, once you’ve broken your long standing party loyalty to vote UKIP, are you happy to then vote Tory?
However, no one is confused about where the bulk of UKIP support has gone. In a number of Conservative general election battleground seats UKIP is even standing aside, believing the Conservative candidate now embodies what they want in the next Parliament.
Another disagreement between May and Juncker would suit the Conservatives just fine in the week leading up to the general election. If the Brussels Bogeymen can help to get the ‘Leave’ vote back out in force, it will help the Prime Minister to secure her “strong and stable” Brexit.
THE PROSPECTS OF A LIB DEM FIGHT BACK?
The local results were a mixed bag for the Lib Dems. On the plus side they achieved their highest ever support, but on the downside, they still lost seats. The same thing happened in 2010, national vote share (and hopes) went up but ultimately their number of seats went down. The country was in the hands of Cleggmania then, something Tim Farron hasn’t quite managed to recreate yet.
The Lib Dems often do well locally, but that doesn’t mean it will equate nationally. Some expectation management from Lib Dem HQ could be in order, especially in light of claims from Tim Farron that the Lib Dems could replace Labour as the main opposition force.
We can expect renewed calls from Lib Dems, Greens and maybe even UKIP for a more proportional voting system in light of this failure to secure national representation.
SO WHAT CAN WE TELL FROM MAY 4TH?
Local elections aren’t usually a reliable way of predicting the outcome of a general, but they do offer a good gauge on the types of trends we can expect to see. This general election has factors at play that we haven’t seen before and others we haven’t seen for at least a generation, factors which could produce some surprises.
The cynic in me says more young people may turn out to vote, but it won’t be in sufficient force to shift the results significantly. Brexiteers are more motivated to secure the future of last June, and they will be voting Tory. Tactical voting will throw up a handful of progressives and wildcards that may buck the national trend. But, in a comparison she might object to less, all the evidence points to a Thatcheresque landslide for Theresa May next month.