There are reasons to be sceptical about reading too much into local election results and what they tell us about what would happen in a general election. Only some parts of the country get a vote, turnout is noticeably lower and some people even vote on the basis of the performance of their local council and councillors. If you want to know the national picture, the national opinion polls give a much better indication.
Putting aside the not insignificant matter of who actually runs councils, however, local elections are important in two other ways. First, there is the issue of party morale. As an MP, your councillors will usually be your key activists, willing to knock on doors and organise delivery networks, and fill the senior positions in the constituency association. MPs and councillors have a shared interest in ensuring that the constituency party functions properly. Councillors who have lost their seats, however, may become disengaged. Worse, they may blame the national party for the loss of their seats. Leadership loyalists may have an uncomfortable time.
Second, local elections give us local information, even if the low turnout makes it imperfect. Most polls give us the national numbers but the days of standard national swings are long behind us. In a period of apparent political alignment, different types of voters move in different directions. As those different types of voters are unevenly geographically distributed, we have seen all parties advance in some parts of the country while retreating in others. In 2019 this worked to the advantage of the Conservatives because they advanced sufficiently in some areas to win many seats while retreating in other areas without losing more than a handful of constituencies.
Do yesterday’s local elections tell us much about what is happening in these two distinct areas? To put it another way, what is happening in the battles for the Red Wall and the Blue Wall?
The Red Wall, of course, consists of those largely working class, Leave-voting constituencies that the Conservatives captured in 2019 and in which they performed strongly in 2021. Evidently, these are the seats on which Keir Starmer is focusing.
I have argued here that pollsters believe that partygate may have particularly hurt the Conservatives in these seats. It was not inevitable, however, that the local elections would expose this difficulty and the Conservatives have not had a disaster. For Labour, standing still compared with 2018 represents an advance compared with 2019. It is also the case that the key voters in the 2019 general election — less politically engaged Labour to Conservative switchers — do not normally vote in local elections.
Overall, any conclusions from these elections about the Red Wall have to be somewhat tentative but I suspect that those in Conservative Campaign Headquarters will feel somewhat relieved.
The same cannot be said about the Blue Wall. Traditionally Conservative, prosperous, well-educated, generally Remain voting — these are the areas in which the Tory majorities were often smaller in 2019 than they were in 2015. If one accepts the view that our politics is realigning (and I do), Conservative losses here might signify not just evidence of mid-term blues but something more fundamental: the Tory retreat from its customary stronghold in south-east England.
The results in London were very grim for the Tories. In 1990, 1994, 1998 and 2018 the Conservatives fought elections when the national situation was unfavourable but still held on to Westminster and Wandsworth because the councils were seen as providing very good value for money for council taxpayers. In 2022 some local Tories hoped that these arguments would prevail again but they were not enough to prevent these councils going Labour, along with Barnet (which the party had never previously won). Very few London Conservative MPs can be confident of retaining their seats at the next general election. Even the Prime Minister’s constituency of Uxbridge and South Ruislip, where Labour made gains, is vulnerable.
It might be tempting to argue that London is different from the rest of the country and we should not draw wider conclusions. The reality, however, is that the people of Richmond, Kingston and Wimbledon (where the Conservatives took a battering) are not very different from the people of, say, Guildford or Esher and Walton. At the time of writing, we do not yet have the results from many Blue Wall district councils but the Tories have lost control of West Oxfordshire. There is little Conservative optimism in places like Surrey or Hampshire. In my own Hertfordshire village the Conservatives did not even put up any election posters for the first time in the 20 years I have lived here.
It is still likely that the key battleground at the next election will be the Red Wall. There are seats that the Conservatives will probably lose to the Liberal Democrats in the south but the numbers are limited. The Liberal Democrats do not have the resources to widen their assault and Labour still cannot capture prosperous non-metropolitan constituencies. A Conservative Party led by Boris Johnson will prioritise its 2019 coalition and try to appeal to the instincts of Leave voters over the south-eastern middle classes.
The longer term, however, is a real problem. London has moved decisively against the Conservatives and the Home Counties are likely to become more like London in demography and values. We should be cautious about reading too much into local elections but there is evidence that our political realignment will not always favour the Conservatives. Home Counties Conservative MPs might want to think about that before it costs them their seats.