Scaling Up: What the local election results mean in the context of the snap general

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Introduction

The UK’s local election system is pretty opaque and complex and, as a result of this, most people are pretty much in the dark as to what local election results actually say about the progress of the parties nationwide. This is especially pertinent when we have a general election coming up just a month after the locals, and everyone is attempting to use the local results as a guide to what might happen in the general election. So, before I jump in and give you my thoughts on what May’s results mean for UK politics and for the upcoming general, here’s a quick explanation of how our famously local electoral system actually works.

It’s all England’s Fault

Northern Ireland won’t really figure in our discussions, as there were no local elections held there this year, and they’re still sort of figuring out exactly how their system is working. So far the new system hasn’t run for one full cycle and they may still change it again so there’s not much point discussing it.

Scotland and Wales have pretty standard systems, in which the full set of councils elects all their councillors once every five years. This five-year cycle isn’t tied to the general election cycle, and was fitting quite nicely into the gaps in it until this general election got called early. As things now stand, Scottish and Welsh local elections will fall in step with general elections. Whether that’s a good or a bad thing is very debatable. It means more people will vote, but their votes will probably be determined mostly by national issues, not local ones.

Interpreting election results in Scotland and Wales is easy. All the seats held are up for election at the same time, and so any changes in seat totals are relative to five years previously (2012, in this case), and the results provide a pretty good indication of where each party is in the region compared with five years ago. Neither uses the same electoral system as the general election, though Wales uses one that’s pretty similar, so overall vote totals in Wales are a decent guide to the support each party might get there in a general election. Scotland uses STV for local elections, so that spreads support in terms of first preference votes out a bit more than you might expect under FPTP (used in general elections). So the SNP’s 32% performance in Scotland in these elections does not remotely suggest they’ll slump to that level in the general.

England’s system, on the other hand, is more complicated. The whole system is on a four-year loop (not five like everything else) and not everywhere votes at any one time. Because of this, actual votes cast in any given English council election set are meaningless in terms of determining the support the parties have in England as a whole. That’s why we have “National Predicted Vote Share”, which is not an actual electoral result, but a calculation that takes into account the bias in terms of which areas were voting and tries to average out a predicted vote share if the whole country voted.

The gain or loss of councillors in English council elections is then (leaving aside by-elections) always relative to the result from four years ago. This applies even when (as is very often the case) there have been local elections in that precise area recently. District councils and most Unitary Authorities elect “by thirds”, which means that each region elects three councillors staggered across three elections (with a break year, in which the Shire councils and the rest of the Unitary Authorities elect all their councillors) and the precise seat up for election is the one that was last elected four years ago (or three elections previously in that ward).

Confused? Everyone is. People who aren’t quite seriously into politics tend not to know this stuff, and that’s why the results of council elections in England are so prone to misrepresentation and horrific spin. For instance, in the 2016 local elections in England, Labour actually got more votes than the Tories. However, this was a poor performance for Labour and they lost a tonne of seats. Why? Because the areas up for election were overwhelmingly Labour areas. Conversely, in the 2009 local elections in England, the Lib Dems actually got significantly more votes than Labour. Did this mean they actually had more support across the country? No, it’s just that the areas up for election were weak areas for Labour and strong for the Lib Dems.

As a vague rule, three out of every four local elections is for the areas where Labour is traditionally strong, and the fourth in the cycle is for the areas where the Tories are traditionally strong. So it’s pointless to try to glean anything from the raw vote and seat totals. You must look at the change. So, when looking at the change in actual votes cast or in seats won, you have to take in mind you’re looking at the change relative to four years ago (not the last local elections in England the previous year) and if you want a year-by-year guide to changes, you need to look at the National Predicted Vote Share. This headline figure gives a good guide to where the parties stand, but is often confusing as it’s very possible a party could be well up in NPVS (compared to the previous year) but well down on seats (compared with four years ago).

This set of English local elections were in the areas the Tories are traditionally strong. With all that in mind, let’s crack on and break down the results by party and have a quick look at where I think the parties stand going into a general election. I’ll be generally going from best performer to worst performer.

The Tories: All Hail our New Emperors?

The Tories are in a hugely commanding position. Most incredible is the rise of the Scottish Conservatives, who have risen from relative obscurity just two years ago to be the official opposition in the Scottish Parliament (displacing Labour) and have now overtaken Labour in terms of council seats held in Scotland as well (276 to 262), having secured 25.4% of the vote. They have a huge opportunity to gain parliamentary seats off the SNP in the upcoming general election and will almost certainly do so.

A score of about 10%  of the vote in Wales seems terrible at first glance, but it’s important to remember that a lot of Welsh local councils are often traditionally contested mostly by independents. Various independent groupings took over half the vote between them, and these groupings do not stand in a general election (in most cases). The Tories’ gain of 80 seats (relative to 2012, of course) puts them in a stronger position in Wales than they have been for many decades.

In England, the Tories have been utterly rampant, gaining 328 seats and 11 councils, and securing around half the vote. This is the set of elections in which they are defending the most seats and they were already pretty strong in 2013, when they were last elected, so this really is a crushing performance. Their projected vote share of 38% is the highest at a local election since 2008, and this should put them on course to secure a crushing parliamentary majority.

However, it won’t be as big a win as one might think from taking these results at face value, as I’ll explain in the other parties’ sections below.

Plaid Cymru: Check these gains, bro

The Welsh Nationalists had a solid night, gaining 32 seats (relative to 2012). Poor performances across the board for Labour have helped them. It’s hard to say exactly what this means for the general election, but they will be eying up a Labour seat or two and Lib Dem Ceredigion whilst quite comfortable in their held seats.

Greens: Not a bad night

The Greens held pretty steady in England and Wales but the Scottish Greens made five gains. It won’t put them anywhere close to another parliamentary seat, but they’re not really in any danger in their one defence in Brighton. Corbyn’s Labour have really been eating into their support base, but it doesn’t seem to have affected them in the areas where they’re actually winning seats.

Lib Dems: Victims of Circumstance

Nothing brings into light the confusing nature of local election results more than the Lib Dem performance. In terms of national predicted vote share (18%), the party is well up on where is was in 2015 and showing a strong fightback. But, these seats were all last elected in 2013, which was actually not a bad year for the Lib Dems, considering the coalition woes generally. As a result, this was always going to be a really tight set of elections. Just holding steady relative to 2013 would show huge improvement over 2015 and thus be encouraging for the general. And, indeed, the Lib Dem vote was actually a little up even relative to 2013. However, votes do not equal seats. In many seats held by the Lib Dems, their vote went up, but the Tories raced past on their huge increases. It would have taken a miracle to stop the Tory surge, and a miracle was not forthcoming. A slew of gains from Labour offset some of the losses to the Tories, but the overall story was still a loss of around 50 seats.

Even given that, repeating the same national vote share of 18% at a general election would be fantastic for the party and would see it probably more than double its representation in Westminster. However, Lib Dems always do better in locals than in generals, and the picture in terms of seats does look tough. Gains against Labour just won’t be in the right places to gain seats, barring Cambridge, Bermondsey, and maybe Bristol West and Burnley, and if the Tory tide continues to rise, then about half the Lib Dem held seats are vulnerable even if their vote rises. Expect some losses but more gains leading to a modest improvement in seats held come June.

SNP: Cresting the wave and staring into the abyss

Still comfortably in control of the situation in Scotland, things are oddly bleak for the SNP. Their huge rise to power began in 2011 and pretty much peaked in 2015, when they took half the vote and 56 of the 59 Westminster seats up for grabs in Scotland. Since then, the Tory resurgence has been eating away at them, and the gains they are still making at the expense of Labour are only just about making up for it, leaving them 6 seats up in the Scottish locals this time (relative to 2012).

But that paints a dark picture for a general election, where there’s only one seat more to take from Labour. That will not remotely offset the losses they will almost certainly suffer to the Tories, and possibly to the Lib Dems, who have concentrated their efforts well in Edinburgh Western and East Dunbartonshire. They’re roughly where they were in 2012, yes, but that won’t be enough to keep hold of all the spoils of their incredible victory in 2015.

Labour: Down but not out

Labour’s performance is bad, but it’s not catastrophic. An NPVS of 27% is down on the relevant 2012/3 performance and that has led to a tonne of lost seats, though many of them are more to do with the Tory surge against UKIP than direct Labour loss of support. They’ve lost over 500 seats and all but one of the councils they were defending, but this is all compared to 2012/3, and a lot of that loss in votes happened before the 2015 general. This means two things: First, it means it isn’t all attributable to Corbyn; Second, it means that a good amount of this loss relative to 2012/3 has already shown up in the 2015 general as seat losses and vote decrease there – the picture relative to 2015 isn’t nearly so bad, and that’s what matters for a general election.

UKIP: Stop it, he’s already dead

Collapsing to just 5% in national vote share and slumping from 151 to 1 in seat terms (relative to 2012/3 mixed), UKIP is dead. They’ve already lost their only MP to defection and they don’t stand a rat’s chance in hell of getting any back at the general.

Overview

In conclusion, local election results are a confusing guide to general election performance and need to be understood in the correct light. Given my analysis of the results, I’d take the following points as broadly representative of what we can expect in this coming general election:

  • The Tories are going to gain seats and win a majority, however:
    • Many Tory local gains are against UKIP, who have nothing to lose in the GE
    • Tory surge vs Labour is not as big relative to 2015 as to 2012/3
    • Lib Dems are actually better placed against the Tories than in 2015
  • Greens are pretty solid on one seat but won’t get any more
  • Plaid might pick up a seat or two
  • The SNP might take Labour’s last Scotland seat
  • The SNP will lose seats heavily to the Tories and possibly one or two to the Lib Dems
  • Lib Dems will lose a couple of seats but gain a few more to end slightly up
  • UKP is over
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