Sean Fear’s Friday slot

Sean Fear’s Friday slot

    What about the the Metropolitan Boroughs?

Labour’s loss of support in the 36 Metropolitan Boroughs over the past 10 years has been striking. Back in 1996, Labour received 53% of the vote in local elections in these boroughs. In May 2006, the party received 34% of the vote, a fall of 19%.

    Back in 1996, Labour won 75% of the seats that came up; last year, the figure was 47%. Labour held 31 of these boroughs, compared to 15 now, a number which is almost certain to decline further in May. This loss of support has come at a time when, almost certainly, demographic trends in most Metropolitan Boroughs should have been favouring Labour.

It could however, have been much worse for Labour. Back in 1978, the Conservatives controlled boroughs like Rochdale, Oldham, Leeds, and held nearly half the seats in Manchester and Newcastle, all of which seems unbelievable today. Currently, the Conservatives hold just 5 of the Metropolitan Boroughs. Although they could well pick up another couple in May, even former strongholds like Wirral and Sefton look out of reach now.

What has happened is that the anti-Labour vote has fragmented, whereas in the late Seventies, it converged on the Conservative Party. The Conservative vote has only risen from 23% to 27% over the past ten years. Surprisingly, their best performance was under William Hague, when they won 31%, in 2000.

The Liberal Democrat vote has also risen over that period, but only from 20% to 24%. This has enabled the Liberal Democrats to pick up several boroughs, and many seats, which might once have switched to the Conservatives.

But the biggest shift has been in support to the minor parties and independents. Their support has risen from 4% in 1996 to 16% in 2006. Local independent parties, the Greens, and the BNP have all made huge inroads into the Labour vote, but, paradoxically, that is not bad news for Labour, as it ensures that their seat losses are much less than if their disaffected voters had switched directly to the Conservatives or Liberal Democrats.

The fact that Labour can still win 47% of the seats on just 34% of the vote shows just how much they do benefit from a divided opposition. The danger for Labour will come if voters start voting tactically for whichever candidate is best placed to defeat them.

There are no by-elections until the 19th January.

Sean Fear is a London Tory activist and write a regular Friday column

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