How much can we learn about the political mood music in the United Kingdom from last week’s Local Elections? Can we really predict who will win a general election based on the councillors elected?
Links between the politics of our localities and larger national and international issues are not always clear. However, there are some trends which provide clues to the mathematics of a general election.
Last Thursday, many people in the United Kingdom took to the polls to cast their votes for local and regional representatives. Wales, Scotland, and a chunk of England voted for local councillors, while Northern Ireland was polled on their devolved legislature.
The headlines that ensued were not as bad as many in the Conservative Party feared, yet still, it was not a good night for the Tories. For the Labour Party, the headlines were ‘okay’ but not excellent. It seems both parties hit a stalemate but if you dig deeper, there is an entirely different picture.
When you compare the Local Election “apples” with the General Elections “pears,” you first must analyse the like for like results.
So, let’s look back to the 2018 general election in England, Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn and Vince Cable were leaders of their respective parties (remember them?) It was the year after the 2017 general election but before the Chequers Brexit Deal and the months of deadlock.
It was eight months after Jeremy Corbyn’s name was being chanted at Glastonbury and his personal brand was riding high. There was something of a truce within the Labour Party and it was before the campaign on the second referendum and the pro-EU splitter parties emerged.
Both the 2018 and this election were not really fought in the so-called ‘red wall’ or, indeed in the Tory rural heartland. In 2018, Labour benefitted from a strong surge of ‘Remain’ support in London, which meant we should have avoided comparing it to the low watermark set by the 2019 general election.
On the surface, things did not change much. Labour did well. The Party continued its dominance of London. This has as much to do with demographic changes and how the Conservative Party, by contrast, never regathered the young professionals’ vote after the 2016 Referendum.
For those reasons, it should not come as a surprise that the Conservatives lost Barnet, Wandsworth and Westminster. If you want to examine their latest performance in London, it is best to look at the London Borough of Merton. Merton was and is a Labour-controlled borough. What changed? The Liberal Democrats replaced the Conservatives as the second party. The Conservatives lost 10 seats and the Liberal Democrats gained 11. You can see the Liberal Democrat resurgence throughout the English results, too, with the Conservatives losing control of Huntingdonshire and Tunbridge Wells.
Much of the narrative of Wales is defined by what happens along the M4 in South Wales. This is partially due to media and the Senedd being based in Cardiff, but that is only half of the story; quite literally, as half of the Welsh council and Westminster constituencies lie West and North of the M4.
Wales is far from being a one-party country. It is the best bellwether we have for a general election in this election cycle. Wales has Labour and Conservative safe seats and also ‘red wall’ swing seats. The Principality last went to the polls in 2017. The Tories were on something of a roll, taking two of what we would now call ‘red wall’ councils in Bridgend and Blaenau Gwent.
We have since seen Tory support in Wales slide, particularly after last year’s Senedd elections in which Labour performed strongly, seen as a sign of confidence in Wales’ Labour government handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
At this election, Labour retook Bridgend and Blaenau Gwent, with the Conservatives going from 11 councillors to one in Bridgend. In the mainly rural areas, where the Conservatives have Tory MPs, the Tories failed to take and retain control of councils including Ynys Mon, Conwy, Powys and Denbighshire and evening lost Monmouthshire.
We cannot directly conclude that the Conservative failure to make gains means they will not win seats at a general election in councils like Conwy, Powys and Denbighshire. They have a very strong independent councillor slate. The telling thing is how the Tory vote didn’t turn out.
From the national perspective, the question is whether the Labour Party can start to make ground on the Scottish National Party (SNP); critical if they want to win a general election outright.
It wasn’t a bad night for Labour in Scotland. They replaced the Tories in second place nationally and only narrowly lost to the SNP in Glasgow. Glasgow was telling. This was an election very much fought on local issues.
By virtue of the fact that Labour did not take Glasgow after such a locally-focused election and is still in second place nationally – with the SNP recording their highest share of the vote in local elections – Labour has a long way to go to return to their heyday.
You could (and someone probably will) write a book about the ramifications of the Northern Ireland Assembly elections. Sinn Féin is the largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly for the first time. This means that a unionist party has the most seats at Stormont since Northern Ireland was formed in 1921.
It would seem the Unionist vote was split between the DUP and UUP, while the nationalist vote was focused on Sinn Féin.
So, how does this translate to a Westminster election? Well, perhaps it doesn’t. Northern Ireland constituencies will probably return MPs from the sectarian divides – they always have – but even if Sinn Féin does take one or two seats from the DUP, it could dent the chances of the Conservative Party forming a minority government.
To use this election as a bellwether, we need to analyse who voted and who didn’t.
The story in Scotland and England is the revival of the Liberal Democrats, who saw significant gains, not only in winning wards but replacing the Conservatives in second place in many areas. This election saw the Conservatives, in total across the United Kingdom, lose 485 Councillors and lost control of 11 councils.
Critically, those voters are not necessarily flocking to the Labour Party, what the Conservatives faced was apathy and apathy is more dangerous to the Conservatives than it is to the Labour or Liberal Democrat parties.
Boris Johnson is reported to be “buoyant” after the local elections as Labour failed to make significant inroads in the northeast of England with the Tories winning an increased number of councillors in Teesside.
I would be wary of using Teesside as a bellwether. The Conservatives have a very active Mayor who has brought a lot of business and jobs to Teesside. This cannot be said across the ‘red wall’, as we saw in Bridgend, and it is no guarantee when it comes to a national election that Teesside will link the local issues with the national.
I’m going to put my neck out and say as it stands from analysing the local election results, that the most likely outcome at the next General Election will be a hung parliament with a Labour-led Lid Dem Coalition with a supply and demand deal with SNP emerging. The local elections, I think, can tell us what’s to come for the country as a whole.
Nic Conner is an Account Director at PRO