Tuesday, 1 May 2018

What will the local elections tell us?

This Thursday, Britain's political parties face their first major electoral challenge since last June, when Labour's unexpectedly strong showing raised spirits across the Left. It's going to be a big night, at least in England (Northern Irish, Scottish and Welsh voters might be tempted to skip the rest of the post, though Thursday night's results might give us quite a lot of clues about the future government of the UK as a whole). All of the councillors for London’s boroughs are up for election, along with one third of councillors in Metropolitan Boroughs – and all of the seats in the following big cities: Birmingham (above), Leeds, Manchester and Newcastle. The same one-third count in 17 unitary authorities are also up for grabs on councils such as Portsmouth, Reading and Slough, as well as 68 second-tier districts such as Ipswich and Lincoln.

The opinion polls right now seem stuck, and as such might not be much of a guide to detailed local and regional performance. Both Labour and the Conservatives seem to be hovering a little above the 40 per cent mark that they both cleared back at the June 2017 General Election. The Conservatives, probably and slightly, have their noses just in front: but really, given the only middling record of British opinion polls, it is hard to be sure. Taken as a whole, the polls at the moment just about point to a continuing Conservative minority government, able to govern (as now) only with the help of Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party. But the polls are so close, and so many seats out there to be won are on such a knife-edge, that your guess is as good as ours, really. It's just as likely that Labour would be able to seize power, albeit very tenuously, and only in their turn with the assistance of the Scottish National Party, the Welsh Nationalists Plaid Cymru and the single Green MP, Caroline Lucas. And the acquiescence of the Liberal Democrats, which may or may not be forthcoming.

This is, however, where we can start to draw out the significance of what we do and don't see when checking the results on Friday morning. On the surface, this might be a bit of a standstill contest. The Conservatives have painfully built up a one or two per cent lead on average in the polls, varying between a lead of five per cent (with Matt Singh's Number Cruncher Politics) and an exact draw (recorded by ComRes): but the last time most of these wards were fought, in May 2014, it was Labour that had the edge. Labour’s lead was just under three per cent that month, with a rather bigger range between a lead of seven per cent and a deficit of one per cent.

On a uniform swing, given that Labour is not performing quite as well as against the Conservatives as it was early in 2014, we might expect Labour to gain no more than a few scores of new councillors. That swing between the relevant, equivalent contests is in truth quite small (of just under three per cent): but it is there. So although Labour should be looking forward to quite a good night at this stage in a Parliament, overall it might be quite disappointed if the polls are any guide. Except they might not be, partly because the relationship between Westminster polling on alternative governments and local election scores isn't particularly good. Remember the 2016 locals, held at a time when the Tories had their noses in front a bit in the polls? Labour came out on top when the National Equivalent Share of the vote was calculated. But instead of just putting up a big shrug emoji, let's take a look at the known unknowns involved.

There are two big unknowns on Thursday night, and they make the result in terms of both vote share and council seats very uncertain indeed. First, and most importantly: where will the United Kingdom Independence Party's voters go? They won seventeen per cent of the vote, and 166 councillors, the last time these wards were up. But UKIP right now seems to be in advanced state of decomposition, with national leadership woes, defecting councillors and huge falls in its vote at council by-elections all contributing to the suspicion that they will lose almost all, and perhaps every single one, of the council seats they contest this year. In last year's General Election, most of these voters went to the Conservatives. If that's true again this week, then lots of seats will fall into the Conservatives' hands. Not just UKIP ones: potentially Labour ones, too, often in quite working-class bastions of previous Labour strength. But if Labour can detach more of these voters than they have hitherto managed, they will hold off any potential Conservative surge in (say) Walsall, Basildon, Peterborough or Rugby.

But some of those voters will simply not now turn up at the polls, and some smaller but significant chunks of ex-UKIP support – for instance in smaller English cities or struggling coastal communities – might heed Labour's renewed populist appeal to discontented 'left behind' voters. This might just make up for any anti-European (and anti-immigration) sentiment that continues to thrive in ex-UKIP heartlands, helping Labour overcome the barriers between them and these potential sources of support. Councils such as Hartlepool, North-East Lincolnshire and Great Yarmouth are worth watching in this respect. What will be the mix of Brexity Ukippers moving over to the Tories, those going back to Labour if that's where they came from in the first place, and those abstaining - especially in these traditionally quite low turnout contests? We simply don't know. The Conservatives will probably lose seats this year, but the exact scale of their retreat will outside London depend on this mix of choices, not by straight switching between the main red and blue teams.

The second element complicating the picture is the performance of the Liberal Democrats. They normally do quite well in local elections, even at time when they are struggling on the national stage. They managed to gain 18 per cent of the vote in the 2017 local elections, just a month or so before they went on to gain under half that total at the General Election only a month later. They managed to score 13 per cent in 2014, when they were recording between five and ten per cent in the Westminster polling. Can they attract pro-Remain voters in urban areas, perhaps detaching them from Labour? If they can, they will blunt the Labour attack just as surely as UKIP defectors to the Tories and ex-Labour Ukippers staying at home will. The Liberal Democrats themselves will probably have to comfort themselves with some progress in, and perhaps capture of, Kingston and Richmond councils in South-West London, their leader Vince Cable's own heartland... and, not very coincidentally, the sites of some of the heaviest Remain votes in the whole country. But their effect elsewhere could be to slow Labour's moves forwards. 

We suspect that these local elections will in fact show that a great, quiet sorting among the British electorate is still underway. Put very crudely, blue collar Britons outside cities are gradually trending towards the Conservatives, while higher-income and more liberal areas are gradually being shaded in pink and red. It is hard to avoid the impression that Brexit – and, more importantly, the cleavages of age, geography, social status and cultural outlook that it highlighted and revealed – has gathered voters in England and Wales into two tribes. The first, very crudely made up of relatively socially conservative over-50s who live in medium-sized towns and across a relatively settled Deep England of suburbs and villages, has seen at least the single largest group among 2015 UKIP supporters move over to the Conservatives. But there is a second Britain, mainly living in cities and radical university towns, and full of the under-50s trying to raise families or make their way in a punishing job and housing market – and in which Labour has hoovered up most left-leaning Liberal Democrats, ex-Greens and voters who previously backed smaller Left parties.

So look for grounds of relatively high-income public sector workers, professionals, liberals, well-travelled Remainers, black and minority ethnic Britons, as well as relatively well-educated young people. Wherever you find them, Labour will do well, and the Conservatives will be giving up territory that, however well-established, is increasingly hostile to their Hard Brexit fervour for a Britain that never really has been, and certainly doesn't exist now. This situation seems unlikely to change until the reality of Brexit dawns, and a new Prime Minister takes over from Theresa May. Only then will some of the likely lines of the next election become clearer. But these local elections – taking place this time only in England – will give us some precious pointers as to whether the country really is resolving into two hostile camps, eyeing each other warily in a kind of cultural Cold War. If the Labour challenge is deflected just where Leave did really well in 2016 (so for instance in Amber Valley, or Thurrock), while they triumph in more Remain-friendly areas such as Trafford, then the long-term trends we sense are there get another tick in the box marked 'actual evidence'.

A number of interesting contests should be to the fore here. This complex balance of Leave versus Remain, the extent of UKIP decline or collapse, Liberal Democrat success or failure, and most profoundly (albeit slowly) of urban liberalism versus ex-urban cultural conservatism, should sharpen up our questions. Will Labour continue to make progress in towns that look more and more like distant London suburbs – in Reading, for example? Will they continue to attract ex-UKIP voters in poorer southern towns and cities, such as Plymouth? In the same vein, will they push their vote even higher in Hastings, where they did quite well in 2014 and which is part of now-ex Home Secretary Amber Rudd’s very vulnerable Westminster seat of Hastings and Rye? Can Labour up their appeal in relatively blue-collar Harlow – a seat they held until 2010, but in which the Conservative Robert Halfon presently enjoys a 7,000-plus majority? What about Dudley, where the Conservatives did very well – in both Labour Dudley North, and Tory Dudley South – in 2017, and which witnessed yet another great big victory for Leave in 2016? There will be myriad clues in the details.

London, of course, now looks like a completely discrete political city-state: it behaves in quite different ways to the rest of the country. But it is still set to be the most important battleground this year, and all indications are that Labour will do extremely well here. It's increasingly a red city. Its entire cultural outlook - the whole feel of the place - sometimes gives you the sense that city is Labour, rather than simply voting Labour. Labour did very well in the capital at the 2017 General Election, achieving a swing of over six per cent and taking three Conservative seats. London is in general full of those Remain voters, social liberals and renters who are increasingly slipping out of the Conservatives’ orbit: European Union citizens are also eligible to vote in these elections, they are disproportionately concentrated in London, and they are unlikely to look kindly on Mrs May’s party. In addition, Labour's membership boom is concentrated in London and the Home Counties, and the street-level campaigning that allows the party to mobilise seems particularly appropriate in densely-populated city streets.

Such is the increasing grip of the metropolitan media, that it is probably in London that the headlines will be made. Although the latest YouGov London polling in late April showed very little change in voting intention since the general election, there seems to have been a huge seven per cent swing from the Conservatives to Labour since the last time these boroughs were contested in 2014. Labour can certainly hope to take control of Barnet, and may even find themselves running Wandsworth: they might just be able to manage to seize control of the Conservatives’ symbolic borough of Westminster too. If they do manage all that – and the last result would be a huge stretch – then Mrs May’s leadership of her party could immediately come under even greater scrutiny. Be warned, though: Labour is already so dominant in the capital that it's hard for them to move forward very much in terms of councillors, and the Conservatives are so entrenched in Wandsworth and Westminster that it requires a big swing (7.5 and 8.8 per cent, respectively) to get them out. In Barnet, once thought a certain Labour gain, the party might well suffer among Jewish voters for its anti-semitism scandal. We suspect that Labour is going to come very close or actually win in Wandsworth, but it's hard to tell. 

Altogether, Labour is likely to come away with a medium-sized haul of new councillors. The Conservatives are likely to get a real hammering in London, while holding the majority of their ground across most of the rest of the country. But that London result should not breed the type of complacency on the Left that the 2017 General Election – Labour’s third defeat in a row – inexplicably seems to have evoked in many progressive partisans. Oppositions are supposed to gain councillors. Labour added 88 councillors in 1984, and 76 in 1988 – the first contests after their disastrous election losses in 1983 and 1987. After those admittedly very small gains when expressed as a proportion of council seats up for election, they still went on to lose the next election.

The real test is to be had at a more granular, and perhaps more challenging, level. Labour must break out of London, do well across areas where UKIP has previously succeeded, and show that they can move forward in seats that are marginal at Westminster while fighting back in Brexit Britain. If they can do all that, then they might be heading for government after all.

This is an updated and expanded version of the author's article on the same subject in the spring issue of The Fabian Review, entitled 'Poll Position', which is available here

Next time: the text of my inaugural lecture, followed in June by a review of Labour's policy prospectus as it stands now. There's always more where this has all come from...