Tuesday, 30 April 2013

England's local elections - PPP's yearly preview

Regular readers will know that this column likes to preview each year's local elections, in order to read the tea leaves on how well the political parties are doing. So will this year be like 2011, when Labour did pretty poorly for the only major party of Opposition? Or will it be more like 2012, an election held just after Chancellor George Osborne's 'Omnishambles' Budget, in which Labour did just about well enough to look like a credible government-in-waiting?

Probably neither. Probably somewhere inbetween.

First, let's set the bar. It's a 'shire' election, in Conservative-leaning rural counties (many of which have had their urban sifted out into unitary authorities for each city). That means we have to calculate a 'notional national share' by looking at how these wards performed in the past and then imagining those shifts all over the country. Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher, the gurus of such things, reckon that if Labour does as well as it's doing in local by-elections at the moment it ought to gain 350 seats. Many fewer - less than 300, say - and all the opinion poll leads in the world will look pretty useless when weighed up against real votes.

All the signs are that they're risking just that outcome. There'll probably be nothing like the local elections of 1968, which saw Labour annihilated and suggested that a Conservative government really might be on the cards, or 1995, when the Conservative retreat turned into a rout (particularly in Scotland), or 2009 - the last time these wards were up for election - when the voters took the opportunity to give the Brown government a kicking as it dredged the very bottom of its unpopularity. The Government will do better than the dire economic situation would seem to suggest. They'll be pretty badly beaten up, all right, but holding their losses down to anything under 300 will feel like a triumph after everything the country's been through in the last three years. Their deficit in the opinion polls has been shrinking recently, and the economy may just (just) have turned the corner. Labour's going to have to come from a 2009 third place in lots of wards if they're to win the seat - a tough ask if ever there was one. If the Conservatives do come out of this with bruises, rather than losing an electoral limb, they'll feel pretty chipper.

Even the possibility of such a result ought to worry Labour, for the real mark of an Opposition ready to spring back into power is overwhelming victories like these at the local ballot box. At the moment, their strategy is frankly overwhelming, and they do very poorly indeed in the south of England. What happens in Essex (above), for instance, where ultra-marginal constituencies such as Harlow should be in Labour's sights, might matter a great deal more than what happens in the Midlands once we get into a General Election campaign. Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, is (probably falsely) rumoured to have a '35 per cent strategy' to win the next election, where he keeps hold of left-leaning Liberal Democrat defectors but doesn't have to attract many other voters. That may have worked for Barack Obama in Ohio and Florida, but the less clearly-segmented electorate in Britain - and Labour's enfeebled state, in terms of both finances and organisation - make that a harder trick to pull off here.

But the real answer to all this in 2013 is that we don't really know what'll happen. How well will the United Kingdom Independence Party do? That's a question that resonates very strongly in a first-past-the-post election where the winner in each ward takes all. Will they do well enough to throttle the Conservatives' chances of holding on to a swathe of councils and seats, perhaps pushing their losses up towards 400? Well enough even to make a big breakthrough on their own and seize fifty to a hundred council seats? It's not clear. Upon that uncertainy hangs a great deal: essentially whether Conservative MPs chortle or panic on Friday morning.

There's your card marked, then. If Labour win fewer than 300 seats, things don't look so good for them - and they will look very bad indeed if they're down under about 200 or so. If the Conservatives lose more than 350 seats, their chances of winning an overall majority in the House of Commons at the next General Election will look even closer to zero than they do now. If they lose a great deal fewer than 300, they can pat themselves on the back and say they've come through the worst.

Come back on Friday, and let's test projection against reality!