Key battles in election 2007

A brief guide to the interesting contests for the late night election junkie.

With an unpopular Government, a new Prime Minister in waiting, a resurgent Conservative Party, the Lib Dems struggling under an ineffective leader and the SNP on the brink of power, these elections promise to be of particular interest.

We should start in Scotland, where the likely victory for the SNP in the Parliamentary elections could represent the next step towards independence (and for those of us watching from south of the border, a step towards permanent Tory domination in England).

The SNP has consistently held its lead in the face of an increasingly frantic Labour campaign. Was it wise for Labour to allow Blair and Brown to lead the negative attacks on the SNP and the prospects for an independent Scotland? A Scotsman poll of polls this week predicted the SNP to be the largest party with 46 seats, still some 19 seats short of what is needed to form a majority.

The most interesting contest will be in Gordon, where Alex Salmond himself is seeking election. Held continuously by the Lib Dems since 1983, currently with a 4,000 majority, it is 18th on the SNP hit list.

The SNP didn’t even manage second place last time, and Salmond will have to outperform the current polls to win this seat (something this charismatic politician is surely capable of doing?).

If Salmond fails to win Gordon, he has a second chance of election as he tops the SNP north-east regional list. But as the SNP already holds four of the nine regional seats, and could win two more – Aberdeen Central and Dundee West – with just a small swing from Labour, the party is unlikely to gain any additional regional seats. So it is possible that the SNP could be the largest party in the new Parliament, but without their leader at their helm!

Other key SNP targets include Glasgow Govan, where Nicola Sturgeon the SNP deputy leader is seeking to overturn a 1,200 Labour majority; David Steel’s old seat, Tweedale, Ettrick and Lauderdale, which has a Lib Dem majority of 538; and Galloway and Upper Nithsdale with a Tory majority of 99. The SNP will also expect a repeat of the 2005 Westminster victory over Labour in the Western Isles. A key role could be played by the Greens, who currently hold seven seats. Their poll rating is the most volatile of any party, ranging from 3% to 10%. The better they do, the fewer seats the SNP is likely to win. Lastly, with the local council elections contested for the first time on a proportional representation system, the political map of Scotland is likely to be completely rewritten.

In England, the Tories are riding high in the polls with around 36% of the vote, but they would hope to be attracting nearer 40% and 600+ seats to be on target for a victory at the next general election. They will certainly win swathes of council seats in the South from Labour and the Lib Dems. Some key Tory targets include Dartford, Dover, Maidstone, Gravesham (typical Kent seats that they will need to win at the next general election), Braintree, Brighton, Ipswich and Labour-controlled Plymouth. They will expect to advance in the Midlands, perhaps winning Rugby and Tewkesbury, and making gains in towns like Derby. A bigger challenge for the Tories will be to make gains in the north, where there is very little evidence of a Cameron-led revival. Targets here include Barrow-in-Furness and Bury (and other towns in East Lancashire/West Yorkshire), whilst they will also hope to make some symbolic gains in the northern towns where they currently have no representation, such as Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle and York.

In the South and Midlands, the Lib Dems will just be looking to hold off the Conservative challenge by keeping control of South Norfolk and Bournemouth, whilst preventing the Tories winning control of hung councils such as Mid-Suffolk, North Wiltshire, Waverley and Woking, and perhaps taking Northampton. In the North, they will want to retain control of Liverpool, Newcastle and York, and even triumph in the old Labour stronghold of Hull.

Labour did badly in 2003, the last time these seats were fought, so if it loses further ground it will be a truly awful night for the Government. In addition to the seats already mentioned, it is likely to take a battering practically everywhere, losing its last representatives in many Southern councils. Perhaps the most it can hope for is to hold onto its northern heartlands, so it will be desperate to keep control of Blackburn, Bury, Oldham, even though it will take only a small swing for them to become hung.

It could be a good night for the smaller parties. The Greens are putting up a record 1,200+ candidates and will hope to increase their current 91 councillors to over 100. In particular, if the Greens poll strongly in Brighton, where they already have 6 councillors, they could stop the Tories taking control.

The BNP is also fielding a record 750+ candidates and is campaigning in many new areas. In addition to fighting in its traditional working class territory, such as Essex, West Midlands, West Yorkshire, parts of Lancashire, it is seeking to exploit discontent about immigration by taking its message to suburban and rural areas, targeting Torbay, Solihull, Shrewsbury and Harrogate.

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What will the 2017 local elections tell us about the general election?

In her timing of the election, Theresa May is taking a leaf out of Margaret Thatcher's book. 

Local elections are, on the whole, a much better guide to the next general election than anything the polls might do.

In 2012, Kevin Cunningham, then working in Labour’s targeting and analysis team, surprised his colleagues by announcing that they had lost the 2015 election. Despite gaining 823 councillors and taking control of 32 more local authorities, Cunningham explained to colleagues, they hadn’t made anything like the gains necessary for that point in the parliament. Labour duly went on to lose, in defiance of the polls, in 2015.

Matt Singh, the founder of NumberCruncherPolitics, famously called the polling failure wrong, in part because Labour under Ed Miliband had underperformed their supposed poll share in local elections and parliamentary by-elections throughout the parliament.

The pattern in parliamentary by-elections and local elections under Jeremy Corbyn before the European referendum all pointed the same way – a result that was not catastrophically but slightly worse than that secured by Ed Miliband in 2015. Since the referendum, thanks to the popularity of Theresa May, the Conservative poll lead has soared but more importantly, their performance in contests around the country has improved, too.

As regular readers will know, I was under the impression that Labour’s position in the polls had deteriorated during the coup against Corbyn, but much to my surprise, Labour’s vote share remained essentially stagnant during that period. The picture instead has been one of steady deterioration, which has accelerated since the calling of the snap election. So far, voters buy Theresa May’s message that a large majority will help her get a good Brexit deal. (Spoiler alert: it won’t.)

If the polls are correct, assuming a 2020 election, what we would expect at the local elections would be for Labour to lose around 100 councillors, largely to the benefit of the Liberal Democrats, and the Conservatives to pick up around 100 seats too, largely to the detriment of Ukip.

But having the local elections just five weeks before the general elections changes things. Basically, what tends to happen in local elections is that the governing party takes a kicking in off-years, when voters treat the contests as a chance to stick two fingers up to the boost. But they do better when local elections are held on the same day as the general election, as voters tend to vote for their preferred governing party and then vote the same way in the elections on the same day.

The Conservatives’ 2015 performance is a handy example of this. David Cameron’s Tories gained 541 councillors that night. In 2014, they lost 236, in 2013 they lost 335, and in 2012 they lost 405. In 2011, an usually good year for the governing party, they actually gained 86, an early warning sign that Miliband was not on course to win, but one obscured because of the massive losses the Liberal Democrats sustained in 2011.

The pattern holds true for Labour governments, too. In 2010, Labour gained 417 councillors, having lost 291 and 331 in Gordon Brown’s first two council elections at the helm. In 2005, with an electoral map which, like this year’s was largely unfavourable to Labour, Tony Blair’s party only lost 114 councillors, in contrast to the losses of 464 councillors (2004), 831 councillors (2003) and 334 councillors (2002).  This holds true all the way back to 1979, the earliest meaningful comparison point thanks to changes to local authorities’ sizes and electorates, where Labour (the governing party) gained council seats after years of losing them.

So here’s the question: what happens when local elections are held in the same year but not the same day as local elections? Do people treat them as an opportunity to kick the government? Or do they vote “down-ticket” as they do when they’re held on the same day?

Before looking at the figures, I expected that they would be inclined to give them a miss. But actually, only the whole, these tend to be higher turnout affairs. In 1983 and 1987, although a general election had not been yet called, speculation that Margaret Thatcher would do so soon was high. In 1987, Labour prepared advertisements and a slogan for a May election. In both contests, voters behaved much more like a general election, not a local election.

The pattern – much to my surprise – holds for 1992, too, when the Conservatives went to the country in April 1992, a month before local elections. The Conservatives gained 303 seats in May 1992.

What does this mean for the coming elections? Well, basically, a good rule of thumb for predicting general elections is to look at local election results, and assume that the government will do a bit better and the opposition parties will do significantly worse.

(To give you an idea: two years into the last parliament, Labour’s projected national vote share after the local elections was 38 per cent. They got 31 per cent. In 1985, Labour’s projected national vote share based on the local elections was 39 per cent, they got 30 per cent. In 2007, the Conservatives projected share of the vote was 40 per cent – they got 36 per cent, a smaller fall, but probably because by 2010 Gordon Brown was more unpopular even than Tony Blair had been by 2007.)

In this instance, however, the evidence suggests that the Tories will do only slightly better and Labour and the Liberal Democrats only slightly worse in June than their local election performances in May. Adjust your sense of  what “a good night” for the various parties is accordingly. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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