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  1. Spotlight on Policy
  2. Elections
26 April 2019updated 07 Jun 2021 2:17pm

What would be a good night for Labour in the 2019 local elections?

By Stephen Bush

The local elections should be pretty straightforward for Labour: these seats were last up in 2015, when David Cameron beat Ed Miliband handily on the election held on the same day.

Voters tend to vote for the top of the ticket and keep up the habit all down the ballot, which advantages the governing party. (Even when, as in 2010, the governing party loses power it tends to do better than it did in the preceding local election.) Labour lost control of three councils and lost 234 councillors.

Adding to Labour’s joy, back then, the Conservatives had a leader whose approval rating consistently hovered around the 45-50 per cent mark and whose net approval never went below zero.  They now have a leader whose approval rating is consistently in the high teens to low twenties and whose approval rating hasn’t been above zero over the course of this parliament and currently has a resting average of minus 30.

Labour have their own problems as far as Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership ratings go but all of the evidence suggests that leadership approval is less of an issue for the opposition in local elections, which voters tend to treat as opportunities to pass judgement on the government rather than the opposition.

So we’d expect, all things being equal, for Labour to more than make up the lost ground of 2015, and to very easily make triple-digit gains in councillors for the first time in Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.

They should also very easily make net gains of councils, though because most of the councils that are up for grabs elect on the thirds model – a third of seats up each time – they have already regained control of some councils they fell back in this time around. Still, Trafford, Peterborough and Bedford are all areas they ought to do well in.

But the particular prize that Labour could secure in this set of local elections is that at the general election in 2017 and the local elections last year, the party did much better in big cities than small towns. That led some Conservatives to talk optimistically about a small town firewall, or to declare that under Corbyn, Labour simply cannot make inroads into “the British rust belt” to form a viable minority government.

It may be however that the “small town firewall” was actually a “Leave voter firewall”, one that after the delay to Brexit has now been badly breached.

The big victory for Labour in these local elections will be to show that it is the second theory, rather than an inbuilt aversion to Corbyn or Corbynism, that was behind their geographically patchy performance in previous elections.

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