Harry Hayfield: Can we forecast the General from the locals?

Harry Hayfield: Can we forecast the General from the locals?

    How much are the local by-election results a pointer?

It’s often been said that local by-elections only affect a maximum of 1,000 people at any one time (and even less than that if turnout is poor) and is only of any real use to the people who study local elections for national electoral implications.voting-counting vertical strip border.JPG Well, do excuse me if I sound like a rather set in my way Victorian gentleman but “that view is arrant poppycock!”.

    Local by-elections give a fascinating look into the weird and wonderful world of local politics and March 2006 has been an absolute humdinger.

Take for instance, the case of the missing candidate. In 2004, Plaid Cymru – The Party of Wales won the Rhiw (translates as Mist) ward on Conwy so you would expect to find a Plaid Cymru candidate contesting the by-election, correct? Wrong! At the close of nominations Plaid Cymru hadn’t nominated a candidate and if you think that’s bad, spare a thought for the poor electors of Bude in North Cornwall. In their elections in 2003 they had the questionable honour of being represented by a Merbyon Kernow (Brothers of Cornwall) councillor, but did they stand in the by-election for the ward? Of course not.

I’m sure you’ve all seen a good declaration at the local council. The returning officer gets up to the podium and does his spiel but in the Market and West Deeping ward that wasn’t needed, in fact the polling station wasn’t needed and not a single ballot paper was needed! The reason why? The Conservatives gained the seat without a finger being raised in anger as they were the only duly nominated party.

So what happened in March 2006 then? Well, there were 12 gains (3 Con, 3 Lab, 4 Lib Dems, a SNP and an Ind) out of the 32 wards contested and in terms of votes, the shares were: Con 34%, Lab 22% Lib Dem 27%, Others 17%, but hang on a second. Run that through an election forecaster and you end up with a Conservative majority and mounds of Liberal Democrat MP’s which as we all know simply isn’t going to happen (despite protestations to the opposite).

So how about we tally up all three cornered by-elections (where Con, Lab and Lib Dem all fielded candidates). Well, that makes it Con 34%, Lab 24%, Lib Dem 26%, Others 16% which sounds better but still gives you a Conservative majority and slightly fewer Liberal Democrat MP’s.

If only there was a way of figuring out what the vote shares would be if there was a general election on the same day as a local election? Well, what do you know! There has been. In 1997, 2001 and 2005, county council elections have also been held on general election day and so comparing the vote shares in the general and local elections we can estimate what happens to each party in a local election when compared to a general election. And what do we know?

Well, generally speaking: Conservatives 4.16% worse at a general election compared to locals, Labour 11.51% better at a general election compared to locals, Liberal Democrats 6.71% worse at a general election compared to locals and Others 0.64% better at a general election compared to locals. So let’s adjust our March vote share by those levels and see what we get?

“Conservatives polled 34% in these locals, they poll 4% worse, so that puts them on 30%. Labour polled 24%, they poll 12% better, so that puts them on 36%. Liberal Democrats polled 26%, but they do 7% worse so that puts them on 19% and the Others polled 16% and they do 1% better which puts them on 17%.”

Let’s run that through and see what we get. Labour win 378 seats (+22 on 2005), Conservatives win 190 seats (-8 seats on 2005), Liberal Democrats win 45 seats (-17 seats on 2005) and the Others win 31 seats (+1 seat on 2005) to give a Labour overall majority of 92 on a swing from Con to Lab of 1.5%.

So is Cameron on his way to Number 10 based on this month’s local by-elections? Well, in a nutshell no, but then again what’s a set of local by-elections compared to a general election eh?

Harry Hayfield

(Harry Hayfield is a fully paid up member of the Liberal Democrats and former community council candidate)

Note from Mike Smithson. This is the first of what is planned will be a monthly feature by Harry and is part of the new strategy of opening up the site to guest contributors. If you have something to say that will interest the PB.C audience then drop me an email.

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