What ‘good’ will look like for the parties in this year’s May elections

What ‘good’ will look like for the parties in this year’s May elections

Who should win what, and what will the misses and bonuses mean?

The expectations game is an unavoidable part of politics and one that pundits and practitioners play with relish. It is, of course, such an intrinsic part of betting that it’s difficult to meaningfully isolate betting from expectations.

There are more direct practical consequences of how a party performs against expectations. It’s one thing to lose seats; it’s another to lose more than people expect – or, for that matter, to lose fewer. Leaderships and the fates of parties and countries can turn not on the absolute results themselves but how they matched up against what people thought they should or could have been.

The local elections are a very good case in point. In any normal year, the Tories and SNP could expect to be taking losses. Governments in mid-term are generally unpopular and almost always so in their second and subsequent terms. The usual expectation game would be in setting what scale of losses would be survivable. Not so this year – and that’s all because of Labour.

Labour is facing a triple-whammy, suffering from the effects of the Corbyn leadership nationally, but also their existential-level disaster in Scotland, from which they haven’t even begun to work out an answer, and also the effects of running the Welsh governent for 18 years. As just mentioned, under normal circumstances, Labour should be looking to make sizable gains in England and Scotland but no-one expects that and rightly so.

The prediction by Thrasher and Rallings of 50 losses in England seems reasonable to me but if Labour can hold their UK score to Lord Hayward’s forecast of 125 losses they will have done very well. Scottish Labour won nearly 400 seats on 31% of first-preference votes in 2012. With the party now polling in the low teens at best, they might easily lose at least half that total. On a similar note, Welsh Labour gained 237 seats in 2007, an election where it held a lead of 20% over Plaid and Con. Given current polling, a three-figure loss this time should be expected.

In reality, if Labour can keep UK losses below 300, they’ll have outperformed current polling (though critically, not current expectations). To make it a good night, they’ll need to hold on to their English councils – the Scottish ones are surely beyond hope – and sweep the mayoral contests outside Cambridgeshire.

By contrast, the Conservatives will be looking for and expecting gains. For a government to make gains in anything other than a general election year is highly unusual – it happened in 2011, when the Tories made enough gains from the Lib Dems to offset losses to Labour, but otherwise not since the 1980s. With the Scottish Tories riding higher than at any point in a generation, the UK party enjoying consistent double-digit leads and UKIP faltering badly (particularly in local elections), a good night would see the Conservatives pick up at least 250 seats.

Of more prominence will be the mayoral contests. These are now the highest-profile races after the UK, Scottish and Welsh general elections and the London mayoralty. Cambridgeshire and Peterborough should be a comfortable win but can the Tories pick up one or more of the urban mayoralties? To win one would be good; to win more would be excellent. These elections are of course held under SV, which will play a part although it’s rare (but not unknown) for transferred votes to switch the outcome. Probably the biggest prize in play is the West Midlands – Greater Manchester is surely a step too far – but any of the contests outside Lancashire might see a high-profile Con gain.

If the fates of the Tories and Labour are running counter to normality, the Liberal Democrats will and should expect something closer to traditional form. They’ve always been strongest in local elections and while the coalition years were deeply attritional to the party’s council base, the losses weren’t as bad as those suffered by their MEPs and MPs. So as they survived, now they (and others) expect them to recover.

That strength, however, has generally been the result of targeting – wards, constituencies and at most, councils. So just as the losses were minimised by local strength (in 2013, the Lib Dems won more than twice as many councillors as UKIP despite polling 8% behind on NEV), so that same effect will now limit gains. Even so, a good night for the Lib Dems will see a three-figure net seat gain across the UK and winning control of at least one county in the South West.

Targeting will also limit chances of winning the big mayoralities. Unlike the Tories, Labour, UKIP and SNP, neither the Lib Dems nor their predecessors have won a million-voter contest in the last 100 years. The ‘West of England’ (or Greater Bristol) contest is the only one that might just be within range, particularly given the split in the Labour vote.

    The biggest potential cherry on the Lib Dem cake is Manchester Gorton. The party has always prided itself on its by-election ability and after a fallow period during Cameron’s leadership of the Tories, the Lib Dems are now back in the game. However, it’s a massive ask, even given the Lib Dems’ pre-2010 record there. No party (never mind an opposition party) has ever lost a 24,000 majority at a by-election.

If the Lib Dems can go into the elections in a confident frame of mind, UKIP has no such luxury. That the party is contesting fewer than half the seats (and fewer than the Greens) tells its own story. Indeed, UKIP’s whole local government story has come full cycle: 2013 was their breakthrough year and those initial gains are now the seats being defended.

Rallings and Thrasher predict a decline from a 22% NEV in 2013 to just 10% this year. I’ve never been convinced by that 22% figure, which had to be calculated somewhat blind given the lack of prior knowledge about areas of UKIP strength. Even so, a sharp decline in vote share seems inevitable, combined with an even sharper decline in seats won. For UKIP, a good night is likely to be one where their performance is mostly ignored. If they keep their losses in double figure (defending fewer than 150) they will have done well.

In stark contrast to UKIP (in just about every way), the 2017 Scottish local elections are the last set in which the SNP can make sizable gains, which after 2015 and 2016, is the minimum expected. Salmond talked about gaining Glasgow in 2012; his successor should pull off the feat. That alone would make for a good night, though outside Scotland few will notice the detail, particularly as the STV system means not that many seats will change compared with FPTP, and most councils will end up NOC anyway.

May 4 is going to provide a lot of material for the media but only three stories at most will be chosen because there simply isn’t space for more and because the media love ‘leader under pressure’ narratives. Those that are will very probably be those which don’t fit expectations. On that basis, I’d predict Lab losses, Con gains (though this will be more patchy), and, possibly, Manchester Gorton.

David Herdson

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