As far as the local elections go, what matters is location, location, location

Where the parties win will tell us a lot more than what the parties win.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

The Conservatives have continued their expectation management in advance of the local elections with a blood-curdling story in today’s Telegraph in which it is warned that the party faces being “decimated” in London. Elsewhere, party officials warn that they could lose more than “200 seats”.  Over at LabourList, Sienna Rodgers sets out what she sees as a “good night” for Labour.

Elsewhere, Plymouth University’s respected psephologists Collin Rallings and Michael Thrasher predict the Conservatives will lose around 75 seats, Labour will gain 131 seats, while the Liberal Democrats will pick up 12. Oxford University’s Stephen Fisher, who helps run the British general election exit poll, predicts that the Conservatives will actually make small numbers of gains, while Labour will add around 130 councilors to their tally: but the Liberal Democrats will lose 83 seats.

What’s going on? Well, both the Rallings-Thrasher and Fisher models have performed well in the past: what is different is how they account for the collapse of Ukip. That party is highly likely to lose essentially all the 125 seats they are defending. What we don’t know is who benefits, both in terms of votes, but also in terms of first past the post. (It may be that the Conservatives gain the bulk of Ukip votes in the big cities, say: but they are so far back from Labour that these votes will do them no good at all, while Labour win fewer votes from Ukip but do so in places where they are electorally more useful.)

I know this is not particularly helpful but ultimately both models are throwing out plausible numbers. 

The one prediction we can throw out from the get-go is the idea that the Tories will lose anything like 200 seats overall.  Even if the Liberal Democrats take control in their targets of Sutton and Cheam, Richmond, plus gain ground in the county councils where they have fallen back and Labour pick up Wandsworth, Westminster, Barnet, Plymouth, Swindon and Trafford – that is to say, assuming that if the opposition parties hit all their targets – the Conservatives wouldn’t be anywhere near losing 200 seats or anything like it. That really would be an unmitigated and improbable disaster for the government.

Frankly, the Ukip collapse is going to make gains and losses as far as seat numbers all a bit of a wash, but fair play to the Conservatives, who have done a good job of setting the bar comically low as far as gains go. I wouldn’t sweat the overall figures at all as far as assessing how the parties have done tomorrow.

What’s actually a good metric for tomorrow’s results is this: we know that Labour under Jeremy Corbyn are doing very well in big cities and areas that trend heavily to Remain. But at the general election and in current polling, what is keeping the Conservatives in power is that Labour is doing less well in small towns and suburbs. (The most emotionally resonant example is Morley and Outwood, Ed Balls’ old seat, once a safe Labour seat, lost in 2015 and still Conservative even after the party’s forward march in 2017.)

Basically if Labour do win Wandsworth and Westminster that has implications for the Conservatives’ aspirations for a decent parliamentary majority any time soon. But provided that Labour don’t do well in places like Swindon, Plymouth, Hillingdon, and Trafford, which are more numerous, it doesn’t have implications for the Conservatives’  ability to cobble together some kind of minority government after 2022.

Place, not seat numbers, will be a far more important metric for what success looks like in these local elections.

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.

Free trial CSS