What would be a good night for Labour in the 2018 local elections?

A difficult challenge.

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

If the polls are right, Labour should do very well in these contests, but for the purposes of this series I am discounting polls or political developments since June 2017. I am instead focussing on two things: 1) where the relevant party did well in the general election and 2) where the relevant party needs to improve in order to get a majority/ get into Downing Street/ have enough MPs to form a Blazing Squad tribute act, etc. 

These elections are an odd set for Labour, as they are rich in the type of area that Jeremy Corbyn does very well in, but they were also the places where Ed Miliband already did very well in 2014.  

There are elections in 150 councils across England, of which 45 are “all-up”: that is to say, all of the seats in that council are elected every four years. 99 of the councils use the thirds model: elections are held in three years of every four, in a third of the council seats. In the remaining six council elections, half of the seats are up for re-election.

The all-up elections contain the most Labour-friendly areas. They include the 32 London boroughs, Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester and Newcastle-upon-Tyne.  But to give you an idea of the difficulty of working out what a good night is, here are some useful figures.

In London, Labour already control 21 of the 32 boroughs up for grabs. In the vast bulk of those, the party already has thumping majorities, with the potential for only a handful of gains. On a good night, Labour would reduce the remaining opposition in the likes of Waltham Forest or Merton to single figures and eliminate the opposition entirely in places like Hackney or Southwark, where the opposition is already nearing or at single digits. They would consolidate their position in  Redbridge Council, where they had very good results in both Ilford constituencies in June.

As far as actually gaining control of additional councils, only Barnet looks particularly appetising – Labour needs a handful of seats for control and they did well enough in the general election to indicate they should win here. The possibility that Wandsworth and Westminster could turn red for the first time in their history is being given credence by Labour’s very good performances in the boroughs in the general election – Karen Buck, the MP for Westminster North, won every ward in her constituency; while Conservative Mark Field, who represents the other part, saw his majority slashed.

But the boundaries are not Labour-friendly in Westminster and the party is coming from a long way back (they need 31 seats for a majority of one – they currently hold just 15). In Wandsworth, the boundaries are more favourable but they are similarly coming from a long way back, with 31 seats again needed for overall control, and just 15 at present. Hillingdon is, on paper, an easier gain – they need ten gains for control – but Labour have tended to struggle in outer London. If they win here, it is a good sign that the party is starting to do better in the suburban areas where it struggled to win in 2017. 

As far as the other all-up councils go, in Manchester the party currently holds all but one of the council seats, and a good night would see them prevent any further Liberal Democrat revival. In Leeds, the party holds 60 seats out of 99, but would hope to squeeze the other two parties further, and they would hope to do likewise in Birmingham, where they already hold 79 of the 120 seats available.

Among councils electing in thirds, on a good night Labour would win Trafford – the Conservatives are defending 12 of the 23 seats that are up, and Labour needs to gain half of those while holding onto the nine it is defending to gain an overall majority. The party will have done badly if they don’t, at a minimum, “win on the night” – and they ought to get to a position of no overall control at least.

They are in a similar position in Swindon, where they are attacking 12 seats (one Liberal Democrat, the others Conservative) and defending nine, with five gains needed for Labour control. This would be a slightly better gain for Labour as the party did slightly less well in Swindon, where they narrowly failed to win either of the seats. In Trafford they posted big wins in two of the three constituencies in June, and Andy Burnham won a majority of the wards in his mayoral race despite his Conservative opponent being Trafford’s council leader.

Of the six councils that are electing half their council seats, only Oxford is somewhere the party does well. But the party already holds 34 of the 48 seats on the council, and is defending 17 seats while attacking just eight (three Green, five Liberal Democrat). On a good night, they would build on their very good result in Oxford East and knock out the Green presence entirely.

All in all, however, a good night for Labour would be one in which they can make gains in areas where they did patchily in 2017 – such as Hillingdon, or, outside of London, Plymouth – and where they converted their very strong general election performances into one-party states in many of their strongest areas. But even a good night would likely be one with few seat gains due their dominance in many of the areas up for grabs.

Read what a good night would be for the Liberal Democrats here.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics. He also co-hosts the New Statesman podcast.

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