How Did the Parties Fare on May 3rd?
The Conservatives won 5,315 English council seats on May 3rd, a net gain of 911. The Liberal Democrats won 2,171, a net loss of 246. Labour won 1,877 seats, a net loss of 505. The Conservatives made a net gain of 39 councils, leaving them with control of 206, Labour a net loss of 8, leaving them with control of 46, and the Liberal Democrats a net loss of 4, leaving them with 27.
Rallings and Thrasher project the partiesâ€™ national vote shares at Conservative 40%, and Labour and the Liberal Democrats at 26% each (actual vote shares will of course be different).
In Scotland, the SNP won 363 seats, Labour 348, Liberal Democrats 166, Conservatives 143, and Others 194. Figures for gains and losses are irrelevant, as Scotland has switched to using proportional representation for local elections. Two Scottish councils have Labour majorities, three are held by independents, and the remaining 27 are under No Overall Control.
Labour have claimed their results were better than expected. That is correct. They were extremely bad, as opposed to catastrophic. In common with a number of other commentators, I had expected their vote share to fall below 25%, and for the Liberal Democrats and minor parties to make big gains at their expense. This did not materialise.
That does not alter the fact that Labourâ€™s position in local government is now grim. The party has lost half its councillors since 1997, and now holds a smaller proportion of Englandâ€™s council seats than it held in 1978, its previous worst year. Labour has been forced back into its heartlands, the Metropolitan Boroughs, and County Durham, and even some of those were lost, such as Sheffield, Oldham, Wear Valley, or nearly lost, such as Derwentside, and Sedgefield. Labour has no representation at all on 80 councils, some of which it controlled in the recent past, such as Fenland and Castle Point.
Its representation in many marginal seats, such as Swindon, Peterborough, Welwyn Hatfield, Dartford, has fallen to a dangerously low level. The party did have successes last week, regaining Luton and Leicester, as Muslim hostility to the Party over Iraq has cooled, and North Lincolnshire, on the back of disputes over refuse.
However, for three years in a row, in local elections, the Party has polled every bit as badly as the Conservatives did from 1994-1996, and its leaders should not believe otherwise.
The Liberal Democrats must be disappointed with this result. I had thought they would break even on the night, gaining seats from Labour to compensate for losses to the Conservatives. In the event, their gains from Labour were modest, while some of their losses to the Conservatives were spectacular; just 7 authorities produced 146 losses to the Conservatives.
Torbay may be a poisoned chalice for any party which holds it, but the loss of North Devon, and Conservative advances in North and West Wiltshire, Herefordshire, and Bath and NE Somerset are bad news for the party. That said, Liberal Democrat support seems to have held up well, or increased, in quite a lot of places that are already strong for the Party, such as Hampshire, Somerset, Solihull, and South Lakeland.
If these results were repeated in a general election, their seat losses to the Conservatives would probably not be great, albeit their chances of gaining further seats from the Conservatives would be remote.
The Conservatives have best reason to be pleased. In England, they now hold almost as many council seats as Labour and the Liberal Democrats combined, and are now stronger, in terms of both councils and councillors, than at any point since 1979.
Contrary to much of the spin on Thursday night and Friday, the Conservatives performed well across most of the Midlands, and much of the North, gaining control of councils like Lincoln, East Riding, Blackpool, Chester, as well as holding Hyndburn, which I had expected to fall. The Conservatives are now very strong in Lancashire, outside Greater Manchester, and in a considerable part of Yorkshire. However, as they have done for some time, the Conservatives failed to make any advance in West Yorkshire.
The Conservatives held Calderdale from 2000 to 2004, but are now not close to winning overall control of any of its five authorities. This is a crucial electoral battleground, with nine marginal seats, and it is essential for the Conservatives to make headway here.
Among the minor parties, the Greens made a net gain of 17 seats, which was fewer than last year, when less than half the number of seats was contested. This masks an impressive average vote share of more than 10%, for their 1,400 candidates. In the wards making up Norwich South, the party came first, with 29% of the vote.
More strikingly, a high average vote share for the British National Party, 15%, resulted in a net gain of just two seats. It is clear that that party suffers from a version of Palmerâ€™s Paradox, in that the better the party does in any particular area, the more its opponents are stimulated to vote for whichever candidate is best placed to beat it.
In a string of seats, its candidates polled strongly, but still lost narrowly. UKIP managed to poll more strongly than its performance in recent by-elections had implied it would, but still suffered an overall loss of one seat.
Sean Fear is a London Tory activist.