Tuesday, 2 May 2017

What should we look out for on Super Thursday?

So it was nice to have a holiday from blogging over Easter. We were looking forward to a nice quiet summer looking at some wonky-but-vital public policy questions. Has anything important been announced while we've been gone? Oh.

Well, despite the descending pall of despair prompted by yet another vote, we're going to try to keep our heads and stay on target - providing you with a bit of a handy guide as to what to expect while looking through the mind-bending seventies lava lamp that the next few weeks will at times resemble. Remember: numbers are your pal. The trend is your friend. Reason still applies. As the heat rises, just take a step back and ask: beyond the red mist, where have we got to really? How much have things really changed? The answer usually being: not far from where we started. And: not that much, really.

So it is with this Thursday's local elections across the United Kingdom. Most of the country is going to the polls, mostly to elect their local councillors, but also to pick a rash of inelegantly-titled but quite important Metro Mayors in some big cities. Those contests are important in their own right, of course, for local social services, elderly care, transport and planning: but they also tell us a great deal about the state of the parties. Every year since 2011, we've tried to give you a bit of an insight into what all this means. Then, it meant that Ed Miliband probably wasn't going to make it to No. 10. We were right. In 2012, the Liberal Democrats took the full brunt of public anger about coalition cuts: we predicted that they would one day have to meet in a shoebox. That wasn't too shoddy a prediction either. Last year, we thought that Labour would do quite poorly, failing to gain any purchase pretty much anywhere outside London. And so it proved - though they did better than some doomsayers believed they might.

This year? We're not going to try a prediction. There's no point. No doubt Labour will do fairly badly (though not quite catastrophically), the United Kingdom Independence Party will crash and burn compared to their 2013 high water mark, and the Conservatives will make gains. In Scotland, and despite some recent signs that enthusiasm for them has come slightly off the boil, the Scottish National Party will complete their demolition job on Labour, ending their control of major cities such as Glasgow - a major news story in its own right. So far, so simple. The only issue in doubt? It's by no means so clear how well the Liberal Democrats will do, because their recent run of great local by-election results makes them look great at this level - an impression undermined by their failure to get much of an upward lift in the national polling at all. But we'll know fairly soon. Friday will reveal all. 

It's probably more useful to help you with a clearing-house of what to look for as indicators of success and failure. As the cascade of numbers then rolls in, you'll have a rough-and-ready way of making your own mind up about victors and vanquished.

In England, if local byelections were our guide, election gurus Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher reckon that the Liberal Democrats will do well, but Labour will do very poorly: the former party might pick up just under 100 gains, while the latter lose perhaps 75 councillors - predictions that have been revised up (for the Lib Dems) and down (for Labour) in recent weeks as the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have continued to surge in local byelections. The Lib Dems have ambitions to win majority control in Cornwall, and to wrest Somerset and Devon back from Conservative control. But for Labour as the formal and major party of Opposition to be losing seats while it's still some way below its councillor strength even when in government is some mean feat of underachievement, and points to a very poor result in June. Bear in mind also that the Rallings and Thrasher figures aren't particularly up-to-date, as there haven't been many local byelections for a few weeks: if the polls are to believed, things could be much worse for Labour given the deficit that now yawns between them and their main rivals. They could in theory lose more than 300 councillors. Even the Lib Dems would be hit by a surge in support for Theresa May, losing a handful of wards as the Conservatives carry all before them. This will be an interesting test. If Labour doesn't lose any councillors, or even gains a few on the back of UKIP's decline, then people will start talking as if it could hold on to many more marginals than predicted come the June General Election. In terms of councils, can Labour hold on to Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, even as they probably lose overall control there? Can they stay in power (albeit in coalition) in Lancashire, Northumberland and Cumbria? Given that these are England's mainly-blue counties, Labour doesn't have all that much to defend - but can they keep their county councillor count above that of the Lib Dems? We'll soon know.

In terms of the English Metro Mayors, there are only really two that tell us all that much: the West of England contest, probably a three-way battle between the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats and Labour; and the West Midlands match-up between the Conservatives and Labour (above). The Peterborough and Cambridge election is overwhelmingly likely to end in a Conservative victory, while Manchester, Liverpool and the Tees Valley will almost certainly stay Labour. It's almost impossible to divine who'll come out on top in the West Midlands (just possibly Labour), while in Bristol, Bath and South Gloucestershire we'd mark your card for the Liberal Democrats and their ex-MP Stephen Williams, though that's quite frankly a complete guess based on local support for Remain at the EU Referendum, as well a dash or two of anecdote as well as Mr Williams' personal face recognition. One thing's for sure: if Labour even comes close to losing the West Midlands, given the 9.4 per cent lead it enjoyed there at the 2015 General Election, it's going to get hammered at the national polls in June. If they do actually lose their grip on this region, it portends a truly historic defeat (eight of its first fifty defences are in the West Midlands). And if the Lib Dems can get close to capturing the West of England Mayoralty, they have a real shot at taking back local marginals such as Thornbury and Yate and Bath. 

In Scotland, the SNP will continue its long march through Labour's old citadels. The last time these councils were fought over, in 2012, Labour still felt as if Scotland was its own domain or back yard in some way. Well, they don't feel like that now, that's for sure. Labour only lost out to the SNP by less than a single percentage point back in 2012, at a time when they were running some way ahead of their Nationalist rivals in General Election polling. Now, reduced to a pitiful remnant of their former selves and desperately fighting to hold on to their single Scottish MP in Edinburgh South, Labour can thank their lucky stars that they will be sheltered by the proportional voting system Scotland uses to elect local authorities. If they weren't, they might get wiped off the map altogether, Except them to get an almighty walloping anyway, despite their PR umbrella. The main interest here will be: is the apparent Conservative surge in Scotland, heralded by forecasts of anything between three and eleven gains in June, really going to see the Scottish Conservatives splash a whole load of blue back onto the map? Look here not just for how high their vote goes - can it get into the mid- to high-20s? - but also how concentrated it is, from South Aberdeenshire to Dumfries and Galloway. If they do really well in elections to those councils, and perhaps in Angus and Moray as well, they really could be heading for a breakthrough night on 8 June.

Last but by no means least, in Wales it does look as if Labour will lose lots of councillors. They did really well here in 2012, picking up 235 councillors and eight councils. So they're likely to drop back, especially as the latest polling coming out of Wales saw Labour on course for a historic kicking in June. Can it really be true that Welsh Labour will end up ten points behind the Conservatives come the General Election? And that the Conservatives will actually win the most seats in Wales, for the first time since the nineteenth century? Well, Thursday will give us some indication. The only poll we have of the local, as opposed to the Westminster, contest here shows Labour a couple of points ahead of the Conservatives, and therefore likely to hold on in some of the places that they might lose in June (but down from a 20-point lead in 2012). So if there's a narrow Labour lead, bearing out results from the same data used to construct the recent shock YouGov poll on Westminster voting intention, it does seem likely that the Conservatives will make deep inroads here come the general poll. Look for results coming out of Cardiff, Delyn and Alyn and Deeside if you want a rough-and-ready guide to how some of Labour's at-risk Welsh marginals might perform five weeks from now.

Overall, by this Friday evening we'll get at least some sharper - but still fuzzy - sense of the overall state of the parties. The coldest of cold takes will be this: 'ah, well, this and this doesn't match the polls, so they must be wrong'. Keep in mind that these are local elections. Lots of independents are standing. Loads of local issues are in play. Some voters will vote tactically when they look at the shape of their own council, and in ways that they might not when choosing a Prime Minister. In 1983 and 1987, for instance, the Conservatives ended the night on a projected national share of the vote 'only' three per cent and six per cent ahead of Labour. In General Elections just a month or so later, they ended up sixteen and eleven points ahead - a dichotomy that looks likely to remain in place this time. So if the Conservatives lead at all when you see academics discussing the national vote share - even by just a few points - then the opposition parties could still be in deep trouble. As Mike Smithson over at politicalbetting.com has pointed out, this time voters know that there's about to be a General Election (they didn't in 1983 and 1987), and so national preferences will indeed shape these contests more than most. But the qualitative signs above - rather than the raw numbers - should still give you a good impression of who's hot (and who's not) as we gear up for the national contest that's now upon us.

Lucky old us, eh?