A set of local elections, which started with great expectations for Labour at the start of the year, has ended in a quiet affair. Labour will be disappointed following months of hype about the result, the Conservatives will be relieved they haven’t been routed as some feared, and Liberal Democrats will continue to feel they have a chance of #LibDemFightBack. However in these local elections, in the words of Theresa May, ‘nothing has changed’ (or at least very little).
Labour’s high hopes were to nearly sweep the board in London and seize the Conservative Party’s crown jewels of Wandsworth, Westminster, Barnet and Hillingdon. The party even wanted to mount a serious challenge in Kensington and Chelsea with well attended #unseat campaign events taking place.
However, the local elections did not work out that way. In London the Conservatives largely held their Councils, with the only disappointment in an otherwise good night being the loss of Richmond to the Liberal Democrats.
Where Labour did succeed in the capital was taking Councils it held further out of the reach of the Conservatives, Hammersmith and Fulham being a prime example. In 2010 the Conservatives were in a majority on the Council, yet now only hold 11 of the 46 seats – down nine on the 2014 result – with former Conservative stronghold wards such as Ravenscourt Park flipping to Labour.
Labour has made progress in the councils the party targeted, and this may position it well for the future as London slowly turns a deeper shade of red overall.
Wandsworth, Westminster, and Kensington and Chelsea are longstanding Conservative councils and victory would have been big, signalling a changing of the times in London. However, Labour rarely made this argument and instead allowed an optimism of a big win to sweep through the media, which eventually turned into expectation. Measured against this, the results in London are the equivalent of a defeat for Labour.
Labour’s anti-semitism row has also clearly dented the party’s chances of making gains in Councils like Barnet. Reports through the night said that in these areas with a high Jewish population, Labour’s vote was collapsing and appears to have led to councillors losing their seats. Former councillors have taken to twitter to criticise the party, and the leader of Barnet’s Labour group has acknowledged it had an effect. Barnet was the most obvious example of this impact, but this will likely have affected other results as well. More generally the row looks unseemly, and is not what voters want from a prospective government. Labour’s poll ratings have fallen slightly in recent weeks, and the row has contributed to a more hostile press environment for the party. Past the most obvious impacts in authorities such as Barnet, it is hard to quantify the exact impact of the row – but it is clear there is an issue which the party must resolve ahead of the next election.
Local elections that took place outside of London were mixed as well. Both Labour and the Conservatives had positive results, which they are trying to spin to show they are making ground. Labour won control of Plymouth Council, and became the largest party in Trafford. However, they also lost councillors to the Conservatives in Nuneaton and Bedworth, and the Liberal Democrats in Kingston upon Hull. The Conservatives meanwhile have held ultra-marginal Swindon, taken Peterborough and maintained its position as the largest party on councils such as Portsmouth and Amber Valley.
It is always hard to draw clear conclusions from local elections. The variety of seats which are in play lends itself to the ‘mixed night’ narrative, and local elections can be as influenced by national political issues as issues within a locality. There are some clear themes which emerge from this set of local elections which show what has changed, and what hasn’t, since the 2017 general election.
England is increasingly split between remain/urban areas, which Labour wins, and small towns, industrial and rural areas that favoured leave, which the Conservatives’ win. Despite the poor performance against expectations, Labour will comfortably have won the most councillors and leading psephologist Professor John Curtice expects the Conservative and Labour to be “even stevens” in the projected national vote share. This is a continuation of the political shift which took place in the 2017 election that started with the EU referendum. These groups both represent large portions of the country and from current evidence very little has changed in their mind since the general election.
This poses problems for the next general election. With such a balanced division in the country, it is hard to see a clear way for the either Labour or the Conservatives to gain a clear advantage and deliver a majority. Both of their paths to victory rely on maxing out all possible support from their respective coalitions of voters, which risks exacerbating divisions in the country and would not deliver a large majority with which to govern. Alternatively, Labour or the Conservatives must blink and offer something which reaches across the divide to attract new voters. The risk with this will be alienating some of the core vote which has got them to this position. Such a fine balance is a dilemma, and will require one of the parties to blink.
Despite these wider problems, the Conservatives will be relieved. These elections at least do not add further pressure on the Prime Minister and shows there are parts of the country which still favour the party, and potentially Theresa May. However, May remains under immense pressure and these elections will likely be swiftly forgotten as attention turns back to her apparent inability to command a Commons (or even Cabinet) majority on critical questions around Brexit and the Customs Union. While the election is not an additional headache, neither is it going to provide any sense of respite for the Prime Minister or the Party.
The biggest winner of the night was the Liberal Democrats. They have performed strongly in areas which voted remain and in which they previously have performed well. While this is big for the party, and winning Richmond and strong performances in Hull, Eastleigh and Cheltenham are welcome, this is still in a concentrated and small portion of the country. The Lib Dems have also not been able to gain wider support in remain areas, with these voters still preferring Labour as the default opposition to the Conservatives. If there were a general election soon, there would likely be modest gains for the party and some even suggesting Vince Cable and the Lib Dems could play kingmaker. What is for certain is the party will be pleased that they aren’t fading from relevance and still have an electoral future.
In comparison UKIP got massacred. The party has continued to perform poorly following the EU referendum as voters struggle to see the point of them. When these seats were last fought, the party got 18 per cent of the vote. Fast forward four years and there is nothing to be pleased with, apart from Brexit happening. UKIP’s chairman has said the party can come back, but it is unclear what it must do and if it has the will do so. In the meantime it continues to lose ground, with voters flocking to the Conservatives.
These elections don’t tell us a great deal we didn’t already know. While local elections are in no way a proxy for what may happen at a general election, this poll has not produced any evidence that either of the two main parties has moved any closer to commanding the kind of support required to secure a parliamentary majority. Attention will now quickly return to the national stage where Brexit continues to throw a huge shadow over UK politics.