Alastair Meeks looks ahead to next month’s local elections

Alastair Meeks looks ahead to next month’s local elections

Every year, the politically engaged pore over the local elections, seeking to make deductions about what they mean for national politics. They do so undeterred by the fact that the relationship between local elections and national elections is not all that strong and they disregard the fact that local elections have an independent purpose from acting as a proxy national opinion poll. It’s usually a largely fruitless exercise that serves only to keep wonks occupied until Eurovision hits our screens.

On this occasion, however, the local elections may have some useful things to tell us about national politics. Both main parties’ coalitions of voters were remade in last year’s general election. This is the first large scale test of whether that change might endure. So here are some things to keep an eye on.

What is the par result?

At the 2017 general election, we saw a swing of 2% from the Conservatives to Labour. Many commentators are getting very excited to see whether Labour can build on those swings at the local elections this year. This is a triumph of Conservative expectations management, because the last time these seats were contested was in 2014, not 2017.

In 2014, Labour were slightly ahead in the national polls – a YouGov poll from the day of the general election had Labour on 34% and the Conservatives on 33%. At present, the Conservatives look to have their noses in front – the pollsters differ on the current state of play and I am going to use the split at the last election where the Conservatives scored 43% and Labour 40%. So all things being equal we should see a swing from Labour to the Conservatives of 2% or so between 2014 and 2018.

The Conservatives should, in normal circumstances, be feeling quietly confident.

Are all things equal? Well, no, and for more than one reason.

Was there anything unusual about the 2014 local elections?

Yes, lots. They were held on the same day as the Euro-elections. This ensured that large numbers of people who felt intensely strongly about the EU were lured to the polling booths. UKIP topped the poll in the Euro-elections. Many, probably most, of those determined Europhobes in the local authorities with elections taking place will have gone on to vote in the local elections too. UKIP tallied a national equivalent vote share in the local elections of 17%, a record. The Lib Dems tallied an unusually low national equivalent vote share of 13% (they did far better in both 2016 and 2017 at a local level).

No Euro-election is taking place this year so that cohort will be deprived of that additional motivation. UKIP have collapsed and are not far off asterisk status in the national opinion polls. 2014 Euro-kippers’ voters are up for grabs and the vote share attributable to them is up for grabs. Who is going to benefit? And what will that mean for seat counts?

Is there anything unusual about the seats up for election?

Yes. The seats up for election are skewed towards London and the other metropolitan areas, where Labour has historically performed well.

Did anything unusual happen in the 2017 general election?

Yes, lots. Both main parties increased their vote share substantially and very unevenly. Different parts of the country swung in different directions between the two. Labour did especially well in London and other metropolitan areas.

We don’t know whether these new coalitions formed last year will continue to hold together in the current election round. The working assumption must be that they will.

So what should the adjusted par expectation be?

You will note that there is a happy coincidence (for Labour) between the last two observations. There has been a lot of commentary to this effect, particularly about London. Some data would be helpful.

I previously looked at the swings in each constituency at the 2017 election. I have now estimated the swings in 2017 (from 2015) in each council where elections are taking place – see the map at the top of the page. I hope that it is fairly intuitive. The key is as follows:

A – no swing (less than 1% either way)
B – swing of under 5% to Labour
C – swing of 5-10% to Labour
D – swing of over 10% to Labour
E – swing of under 5% to the Conservatives
F – swing of 5-10% to the Conservatives
G – swing of over 10% to the Conservatives
H – swing of under 5% to the Lib Dems
I – swing of 5-10% to the Lib Dems
J – swing of over 10% to the Lib Dems
K – swing to the Greens
L – swing to others

You can zoom in to inspect the detail.

Because Parliamentary constituencies and council boundaries are drawn differently, the map is more useful in general impression than in specific detail – and you certainly should not place bets on specific councils without conducting further investigations. Nevertheless, the general picture is clear enough. These are indeed areas where in general Labour did well last year, but there are quite enough areas that the Conservatives will be eager to face the polls in.

You would expect the Conservatives to see a favourable swing in any council where the swing from 2015 to 2017 was less than 4% to Labour (or the Lib Dems). So if the new coalitions are holding together, the only councils that Labour can expect to make substantial progress in on current polling are those in the deeper shades of red.

The councils shaded pink are to be expected to be fairly neck and neck. Don’t be surprised if the Conservatives get the better of these exchanges.

The deep grey and blue councils should all be happy hunting grounds for the Conservatives this time round, as they look to take advantage of the swing to them since 2014. If so, the Conservatives can expect to see gains in some councils even in London, even as they are getting pummelled elsewhere in the capital.

What else should we look out for?

UKIP will almost certainly lose more or less all of their seats and vote share. Who is going to profit by their absence? It is conceivable that all the other parties might pick up vote share and seat counts. Everyone else might legitimately be able to claim to have made progress.

The Lib Dems historically have outperformed their national polling in local elections. 2014 was a bad year for them. They will be hoping that the absence of a Euro-election will assist them this time. If they do better this time, will this be at Labour’s or the Conservatives’ expense?

Will the new voting coalitions lead to different voting practices? Historically Labour have had to work harder to get their vote to the polls. Will this continue?


Don’t believe the hype. Labour should do well in London but the Conservatives have many opportunities for gains and quite possibly might make more than Labour does.

Alastair Meeks

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