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Sean Fear looks to next May’s locals

October 31st, 2010

How much potential is there for Labour progress?

Regular readers of this blog will know that I regard local by-election results as being a good lead indicator of the next round of local elections. Despite having gigantic opinion poll leads from 1997-2003, the last Labour government regularly lost ground in successive rounds of local elections, during that period. Local by-elections pointed to these losses, whereas national opinion polls did not.

The point should be obvious. National opinion polls are snapshots of voting intention in national elections, not local elections. For a variety of reasons, governments tend to struggle in mid-term local elections. Their supporters tend to stay at home, while opponents are motivated to go out and vote. It’s also worth noting that by the time a party gets into government, it is usually defending local council seats that it won while its opponent was in government, and which are well outside of its natural territory.

How have the parties been faring since the election in May? The answer is, very variably. Since the beginning of June, there have been 24 seats contested by the three main parties, in seats that were last contested in 2007. In those seats, the Conservative vote share has fallen on average by 4%, the Labour vote share has risen by 3%, on average, and the Liberal Democrat vote share has remained unchanged. The Conservatives led Labour (in terms of projected national vote share) by 13% in 2007, so this would imply a Conservative lead of about 6%, a good position for a party of government to be in.

However, in seats that were last contested in May of this year, a very different picture emerges. There have been 26 of these seats in which the three main parties have stood. In these, the Labour vote share is up 7% on average, compared to May, the Conservative vote share is down by 6% on average, and the Liberal Democrat vote share is down by 5% on average. The Conservatives led by 7% in May, and a swing of this magnitude would imply a Labour lead of about 6%, a far better position for Labour to be in.

What accounts for such a discrepancy? One small factor is that some Conservative councillors who were elected in May have had to resign in controversial circumstances. But of far greater significance is that the seats that were last contested in May are almost all in London Boroughs and large urban centres, exactly the sorts of areas where Labour performed most strongly in the General Election. By contrast, the seats that were last contested in 2007, are mostly in District and Unitary Authorities, rural areas, and small to medium-sized towns, where Labour’s performance in the Election was weak. Given the emphasis that there has been on cuts in public spending, no-one should be surprised that Labour is performing best in big urban centres, where the benefits of public spending are most visible, and worst outside of these areas, where many people consider that they get very little in return for the taxes they pay.

One thing that should be made clear is that the Coalition parties are not performing notably worse in the North of England than elsewhere. Ten of the seats that were last contested in May are located in the North of England. The Conservative and Liberal Democrat votes were each down 6% on average in such seats, and the Labour vote up by 10% on average in such seats. The significant split is urban/non-urban, not North/South.

The problem for Labour is that the large majority of seats that come up in next May’s local elections were last contested in 2007, in the District and Unitary Authorities. Many District Councils have all-out elections, next year, whereas no London Boroughs are being fought, and only one third of the seats in Metropolitan Boroughs outside London. If the by-election pattern persists, Labour will pick up low-hanging fruit in May, but their headline gains will be limited.

Sean Fear