Labour’s little looming local difficulties

Labour’s little looming local difficulties

Birmingham Council House
Birmingham Council House

Why Labour did too well in 2002

With the main electoral cycle over for the year, the next broad ballot box test for the parties will be May 2006’s English local elections in 176 urban and rural councils.

Local elections are not a perfect test of the parties’ national standings – local issues of course play their role, and turnouts are typically low. But historically they have been an opportunity for a protest vote against the government party. The results can shake a party’s confidence in its leader, particularly as the swing in vote share to the opposition tends to be magnified by differential turnout – while supporters of the government often sit it out at local elections, opposition voters are more likely to take the opportunity of getting out to show their anger at the government.

So is Tony Blair at risk from the aftershocks of a bad election performance next May?

The London borough and district council seats up for contention were last fought in 2002, when the Conservatives under Iain Duncan-Smith were making little headway in the polls. The Conservatives trailed on vote share in those elections by 3 points: by historical standards a disappointing performance for an opposition during a government’s second term. The metropolitan seats, on the other hand, were fought in 2004 which was a much worse year for Labour.

Although Labour has lost some councils which were once its strongholds (for example, Birmingham, England’s largest local authority, which has been controlled by a Conservative/Lib Dem coalition since 2004), the party has certainly not been wiped out locally. 61 of the 176 councils to be contested next May are still run by Labour or by Labour/Lib Dem coalitions. Labour still has a lot left to lose. In fact, with local elections often combining a protest vote against the local council with a protest against the government, the councils Labour still holds may be those where it does worst.

4th May 2006 has the potential to be a bad night for Labour. At this stage of the government’s life, the differential turnout effect at local level will be strong: the longer a government goes on, the more reluctant its supporters to turn out at anything but General Elections. Given this, there is no guarantee of Labour recovering to its 2002 performance, or even holding its poor 2004 share. With only English councils being contested next year, Labour will not have the advantage of its Scottish and Welsh strongholds being in play. Even in the relatively high turnout of this year’s General Election, the Conservatives were the narrow victors in the popular vote in England. And the Liberal Democrats made inroads in traditional Labour areas (though many Lib Dem victories at parliamentary level are built on the back of control of the local council, which creates the possibility of an anti-Lib Dem swing among voters who want to make their protest on local rather than national grounds).

Cantor Spreadfair has a spread of 118-133 weeks for the length of Blair’s 3rd term, corresponding to him remaining Prime Minister until August–November 2007. So the markets are not predicting that he will be blown off course by his local difficulties. But if there is going to be a wobble next year, the aftermath of 4th May might be the occasion for it.

As always, comments are very welcome from all site users, whether they are newcomers or regulars. In particular, contributions from people with knowledge of the areas where elections are taking place would be very interesting.

Philip Grant
Guest editor

Mike Smithson is on holiday until 5th September.

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