State expectations: A warning about local elections for Labour supporters

Christmases, birthdays and elections. Those of us who geek out about politics, get more special days than most. But we also get more to worry about.

Take this Thursday’s upcoming English local elections. If you’re looking for signs that our scandal-pocked Government has one foot in the grave and the other on a banana skin, you should be anticipating the outcome with glee. But it won’t necessarily be a rip-roaring night for Labour. Here’s why.

The cycle of strife

First, this election cycle is a bit of a beast for Labour. Many of the wards up for election are in traditional Tory strongholds, with several in areas where the Lib Dems are the Tories’ main challengers, freezing Labour out.

In terms of target seats, Labour will be looking for quality as much as quantity, seeking evidence that Keir Starmer can land winning blows across the country.

Labour needs success in both the wealthy south, where Lib Dems lurk poised for local election mischief, and the battered north, where Boris Johnson scooped up Labour voters before being dragged from his gilded political existence and dumped on the after-dinner circuit.

A net gain of 400 seats from the 8,000 up for grabs would make Labour the biggest party in local government. Labour is keen to manage expectations, dismissing talk of a 500-seat swing, even as Conservatives play their own expectation management game, hinting they could lose up to 1,000 seats.

Which takes us to the second reason for Labour supporters to be cautious about the upcoming results.

The time-traveller’s strife

About 90 per cent of the seats available this week were last contested in 2019 – practically Jurassic as a political epoch. 

Theresa May was the apparently safe pair of hands in Downing St, Brexit was still the fire consuming British politics, and ahead of us lurked both Johnson’s end-of-the-pier premiership and Truss’s end-of-everything-else premiership.

The Conservatives ceded control of around 50 councils, with a net loss of more than 1,300 seats. 

Being swamped in 2019 means Conservatives start from a particularly low place; sink much lower this week and their councillors will be splashing around in Scuba gear. 

Yet Sunak must find something he can describe as a success, or the sharks will close in.

Salvation may come in the shape of independents, who more than doubled their tally in 2019 as the local Tory vote tanked. In a lot of those seats – places such Boston and Tendring – it’s likely normal service will resume, and Conservatives will win back seats.

A load of crystal balls

Another reason to be cautious about how we interpret this week’s results is that local elections are not a great way to predict general elections.

Local elections give the Lib Dems a boost beyond their national poll performance, which could be particularly evident this week because of the seats being contested – many are rural and Lib Demmy by nature. 

In 2019, their local election performance was predicted to give them 19 per cent of the national vote, though they were only at 8 per cent in the actual national polls. 

Despite having to build on a 2019 result that saw them make 700 gains, Lib Dems expect good news and are eyeing up councils including North Devon, Hart, Wokingham and South Hams.

The Greens are also expected to perform well but, under our voting system, they get frozen out nationally. Their No.1 target will be Mid-Suffolk – but no one is pretending this would signal a Green landslide in a general election.

Have I got news for you? Possibly not

Tory gains, where they happen, are likely to be from independents in areas considered safe Conservative general election seats, such as Boston and West Lindsey. Tory losses in such areas are news, but Tory wins provide limited insight at best.

As for Labour, its 14 per cent plus lead in the Westminster polls will not translate to the local level. In the Blair years Labour had a national poll lead around 20 points but won the locals by only 3-4 points. Caution is the watchword.

Also, in several key Parliamentary battlegrounds, such as Hartlepool and Dudley, only a third of the council is up for election, so there’s limited scope for Labour to make gains. 

But number-crunchers and political geeks will be able to see whether the aggregate vote share in those constituencies is enough to win the seat.

That’s what’s important on a national scale because those of us pressing for a change of government know that, while Labour is progressing, the work is far from done.

And a new government is the gift most of us, political geeks or not, want desperately. Use that vote wisely.