By-election gains may well be yet another false dawn
Up until last year, Sunderland had carved out for itself one, and only one, niche in British political life: it counted its votes at general elections faster than anywhere else. For six successive elections from 1992 to 2015, the southern Sunderland seat was the first to declare in the country. Other than that, the city was politically unremarkable: it’s returned two Labour MPs ever since the 1960s and the Red team is similarly dominant at local level.
2017 saw a bit of a turnaround on both scores. Local rivals Newcastle won the race to be the first to declare at the general election, while five months previously the Lib Dems gained a local by-election on a massive 36% swing. That was admittedly back at a time when Labour was very much struggling for support nationally, polling in only the upper-twenties, but it was still an extraordinary result.
Nor was it a one-off. In the first two months of the year, the Lib Dems gained two seats from Labour and no fewer than six from the Conservatives, despite the national polling showing the Tories up in the 40s while the Lib Dems remained marooned on around 10% with most firms. Against that, they lost just the one seat (to an Independent). They’d had similar success in 2016 by-elections, gaining 30 councillors that way and losing just four.
And yet come the local elections in May, Tim Farron’s party lost a net 42 seats, with net losses in each of England, Scotland and Wales. The tremendous by-election successes were simply not replicated when there were a large number of simultaneous elections, when voters’ attention was focussed more nationally, and when there was a larger turnout. The fact that the general election campaign was already underway no doubt played a part in the Lib Dems’ relative failure there but only a part. After all, activists will still work where they are most effective and given the relatively small number of target seats, in many areas, those priorities would be local rather than national.
So what of this year? Well, in a carbon copy election, the Lib Dems once again pulled off a Sunderland spectacular, gaining Pallion ward on a 33% swing, and followed that up this Thursday with three very impressive gains from the Conservatives (two in Teignbridge borough, proving that it’s not all down to targeting).
And yet. The national polls are worse for Vince Cable’s party than they were in May last year, and while the Tories are off even more (they were in the high-forties in early May 2017), Labour is far better off.
Not that that’s the best comparator. Local elections run on a four-year cycle and those being contested this time were last fought in 2014, give or take the odd boundary review. Back then, Ed Miliband’s Labour held about a two-point lead over David Cameron’s Tories, with Nigel Farage’s UKIP in the mid-teens and Nick Clegg’s Lib Dems around 8-9%. The local elections were no doubt affected by the simultaneous Europoll, contributing to the election of 166 UKIP councillors. The Westminster VI polls translated directly to the local election NEV, with the Labour gaining a 2-point lead in the NEV, UKIP on 17% and the Lib Dems as usual outscoring their Westminster share, taking 13%.
What can we expect this time? The battlefield in this round has thrown up the curious possibility of all the main parties doing well and badly at the same time.
UKIP is not a main party any more and will be annihilated at the election. They may well lose every single seat, though there’s the possibility of isolated exceptions clinging on due to a local profile. That means that the other parties effectively start off with net gains of over 150.
Labour will be most pleased about London being the main battleground. More votes might be cast elsewhere but the capital always attracts disproportionate media attention, which will suit Labour very nicely given how they gained a swing in the multicultural, pro-Remain world-city three times that of the national average at the general election.
By contrast, while the Tories might worry about their prospects in London, the rest of the country (that country being England – there are no Scottish or Welsh elections), looks more fertile ground given the direct windfall from UKIP and the polls showing a small swing from Lab to Con and a larger one from LD to Con since May 2014. The Blue Team should reasonably expect to make net gains – something which a government party has only achieved once since the 1980s, and that previous exception (2011) being mainly at the expense of a different governing party.
As for the Lib Dems, they, like Labour, have opportunities in London – albeit in far more restricted areas – but after that can expect a tougher fight. They do, however, have one of their two mayoralties to defend in Watford, where Dorothy Thornhill is seeking, and should comfortably win, a fifth term. But that should be one of the few high points. The Sunderland or Teignbridge results remain much more likely to be another false dawn than a yellow sun rising.