PMQs sketch: Dave's Darling

"He's on another planet," said Ed of the PM, with the look of a man who wished he could join him.

Those who have yet to buy a copy of Alistair Darling's book on his time with the Great Sulk should rush out and get one, because it is the only way to make sense of the farce that was the first Prime Minister's Questions since MPs took themselves off in July for their several holidays.

With the economy on its uppers, inflation on the increase and growth shrinking, we all knew what the hot topic of the day would be, as Ed (fresh from his nose job) set about Dave (poshly sunburnt; despite having to pop back to town for a few days because of the riots and Libya). Indeed, Ed had to be up for it following recent opinion polls showing Labour just a couple of percentage points ahead of the Tories, despite almost a year under his care.

And so Ed let Dave have it with both barrels: Why is the Government holding elections for police commissioners in November instead of next May?

Earlier, Dave had been seen in earnest last-minute conversations with Chancellor George (equally sun-tanned), being briefed on what tack to take when Ed launched his economy broadside; but this one seemed to stun him.

Indeed, the Commons fell silent for a moment as Members on all sides considered the import of this, the first question to the Prime Minister after such a tumultuous period in our national affairs.

The real reason for this question and the smile it brought to Dave's face had been spotted tucked under his arm by an eagle-eyed reporter as he entered the Chamber: a well-thumbed copy of Alistair's book.

The curse of the Ali/Alastairs is becoming a common thread in recent Labour history, and Alistair D's intervention seems to be at least as unhelpful as many of those attributed to Alastair Campbell.

In the latest Alastair missive, details of his tortuous relationship with Gordon Brown and the Stasi-like behaviour of his team, led by enforcer Ed Balls, are revealed; not unlike the revelations of the books by the other A. It should be remembered that Ed M was praised for his bravery by keeping Ed B away from the Treasury brief when he first took over as leader. But that bold plan was quickly dropped when Alan Johnson, Ed's odd choice for Shadow Chancellor, fell by the wayside.

Just to make matters worse, Darling recounts that Labour's 2009 budget was conceived in chaos and resulted in a complete mess of an economic policy; a bit of a bummer, since this is the plan the Opposition is presently sticking to.

With Ed the Enforcer sitting just a couple of seats away, it was soon obvious that Ed the Leader had decided to bottle it. After the questions on police commissioners came questions on waiting lists, and Cameron's grin only widened. "He's on another planet" said Ed, with the look of a man who wished he could join him.

This let Dave in with the one answer to the Labour Leader he hadn't expected to utter: "He doesn't dare in six questions to mention the economy". Even Nick smiled at that one.

With party conference season just around the corner, MPs back from their hols on Monday will be off again in just ten days for another three weeks of naval gazing. Dave must be delighted that despite presiding over the worst economic crisis for 60 years, he is still personally popular and his party almost up there with Labour in the polls. All he has to do is persuade the recidivists that the Lib Dems aren't getting away with blue murder. Nick has to persuade his lot they are.

Ed Miliband should have had the easiest job of all, but with the recent polls and today's performance, is the jury out again?

As Bill Clinton said: "It's the economy, stupid."

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions.

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions

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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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