What do the 2018 local elections actually tell us about the next general election?

It’s not clear yet.


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What do the local elections tell us about the next general election?

These performances used to be a useful predictor for how the opposition parties were really doing, as they tended to overperform their general election performance by a distance, so we knew that parties needed to overshoot their general election objectives at local elections.

Then the 2017 election happened, and the Labour party became the first opposition party to fare better at the general election than at the previous local elections. 

What we do know is that the local elections have thus far continued to be a very useful guide as to the type of people who vote for a given political party rather than the number of people who will do so.

On that metric, there are multiple readings you can take from these local elections. On the one hand, Labour is consolidating its position among graduates, ethnic minorities, the socially liberal and the young, and it is very hard to see how the Tories will win a decent majority again. On the other hand, Labour are not doing better than they did at the general election among non-graduates, white voters, the socially illiberal and the old and it is hard to see how they will win a decent majority if that doesn’t change either.

But while the local elections seem to still give us information about the type of people who vote for one party or another, they might not tell us very much about the number: at least, they didn’t last time.

The big question is: why did that change? Did it change because, as it stood, on 3 May 2017, the local elections were an accurate reflection on the state of play between Theresa May’s Conservatives and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour, but by 8 June, thanks to Corbyn’s brilliant campaign and May’s very bad one, Labour had fought to a near draw?

Or was it because Labour’s new coalition is heavy on voters – the young, the diverse and so on – who are inclined to give local elections a miss, making the whole thing less useful as a predictor as it once was?

While it is a bit of a boring answer, the truth is: we don’t know yet. I first advanced the theory that Labour’s electoral coalition might simply be becoming less likely to turn up in off-years under Ed Miliband as a possible explanation for why Labour were underperforming relative to the opinion polls. Of course, that wasn’t true in 2015, but it doesn’t mean it won’t turn out to be true in the future. Labour’s coalition has been getting younger, more likely to live in a city and more diverse pretty steadily since 2001 and it took a big leap forward in that direction in 2017. My feeling is that at some point that is going to mean that the predictive value of local election performances at general elections is going to change and change big. We may have reached that point already, but then again it may not. 

Were I a Tory strategist, my assumption would be that this pattern will not hold at the next election and that Labour will overperform their local election performances, on the grounds that no-one ever looks bad for over-preparing. And were I Labour strategist, I would assume that the local elections will continue to be predictive and I needed to find ways to add more votes to my column because no-one has ever lost an election because they got too many votes.

But for everyone else, honestly, I say, just assume that whichever outcome that satisfies you will happen and enjoy your life.

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.