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Nine thoughts on the local elections

The Conservatives have romped home in the local elections. What does it all mean?

By Stephen Bush

Results are coming in from across the country. What does it all mean?

It’s hard to overstate the scale of the Conservative victory

At time of writing, the Conservatives have taken control of 10 more councils and added 304 councillors to their total across England (I’m ignoring Scotland and Wales for a moment as they were last contested in 2012, a very good year for Labour, whereas the rest of these councils were last up for grabs in 2013 and 2009)

To put that into context, in 2009 – 12 years into a Labour government , with a highly unpopular leader in Gordon Brown, in the immediate aftermath of the financial crisis – the Conservatives won control of seven more councils and added 244 more councillors overall.

In addition, they have won the metro mayoralties not only in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, a very safe Conservative contest, but in Tees Valley, a Labour stronghold and the West of England, a three-way marginal between the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats, as well as the West Midlands mayoralty, a straight marginal between Labour and the Tories.

This is the kind of local election performance you associate with an opposition heading towards a big general victory, not a government seven years into its term of office having made big cuts every year.

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There are some mitigating factors. This local election map – again, I’m just talking about England at the moment – is the most favourable of the four local election cycles for the Conservatives. On a good night for Labour, they would run up the score in a handful of places – Warwickshire, Lincolnshire, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Staffordshire mainly – but have a lot of wasted votes. It’s easier to tell that the Tories are having a good night (and the Liberal Democrats) because the map is well-positioned for them.  But they are winning even in hostile territory.

The projected national share – which works out how the country would have voted if everyone, not just the councils up for grabs, had voted – puts a figure on the triumph. The Conservatives are on 38 per cent, Labour are on 27 per cent, the Liberal Democrats on 18 per cent, while Ukip have collapsed to five per cent.

The biggest shift is Ukip’s collapse

To put that Ukip result in perspective, in 2013, they got 22 per cent. That’s what’s turbo-charging the Conservative performance and allowing them to overhaul the Liberal Democrats and Labour even when those parties are gaining votes.

That’s not the only reason for Labour’s defeat, though

Labour are also losing votes, however – they are three points down on 2013. You could see Labour’s leadership issues – bluntly, not enough people want Jeremy Corbyn in Downing Street and not enough people trust John McDonnell at the Treasury for them to win – as a bit like mould in a house. A problem, but one that can be fixed either by replacing the top two or finding a way to turn around the public on them.  Theresa May’s gobbling up of the Ukip vote is a lot like someone setting a fire in that same house.

It may take a long time to repair the damage when that fire makes its way through the house on 8 June.

The Liberal Democrats are looking for love in all the wrong places

The Liberal Democrats have increased their vote, and in excess of the polls –  a four point increase in contrast to the two per cent shown in the polls. That’s the good news.

Now the bad news. That increase looks to be almost entirely concentrated in places where the Liberal Democrats cannot win parliamentary seats. They need to put votes on in places like Cheltenham, Somerset and Taunton . Instead they appear to be stagnating or slipping back and gaining votes in the big cities. That may dent the ego of some Labour MPs with big majorities – but there are no awards for second place under first past the post.

Tactical voting may help Labour and the Liberal Democrats out in June

A minor caveat to the gloom. All the historical evidence suggests that the opposition parties will get a worse result in the general election on 8 June than they have in the local elections.  There’s a but, though: although in a lot of the marginals, at a parliamentary level, it is very clear who the “stop the Tories” option is, that’s less clear in the local elections. Take Taunton North, a marginal council ward in the Conservative-Liberal Democrat battleground of Taunton Deane.

The Liberal Democrats lost Taunton North, a three-way marginal which Labour had a good chance in. Come the election, Labour voters will know that the only way to defeat Conservative incumbent Rebecca Pow is to vote Liberal Democrat. The distribution of seats may look kinder for the opposition than the popular vote suggests, particularly in the case the Liberal Democrats.  

In Scotland, it looks as if there is a fairly strong level of pro-Unionist tactical voting among the three Unionist parties, which may unexpectedly boost Labour’s seat total there in June, even though they look likely to lose further vote share. 

The supplementary vote is the worst of all possible electoral systems

Britain’s mayoral elections use the supplementary vote. Under that system you get two preferences. If in the first round no candidate has more than half the vote, the top two go through to a run-off and everyone else’s second preferences are re-allocated.

The big problem is, as one Twitter user puts it, unless you realise that what this system means in practice is “OK, you’ve had your fun now pick Tory or Labour”, your second preference won’t count.

42 per cent of second preferences in the West Midlands race went to candidates other than the top two. It gets worse in the Bath and Bristol mayoralty, where more than two-thirds of second preferences went to candidates other than the top two. (I suspect this is because many expected a Conservative-Liberal battle in the final round, particularly as many of those living in Bath and North Somerset are used to having to pick between those two.)

There is simply no good case for using the supplementary not the alternative vote, where voters can rank every candidate.

Labour’s odd night in Wales

The election night in Wales looked very much like the story of Labour nationwide since 2010 – they did very well in the cities and badly in small towns. Except that is, in terms of who benefited from it. The biggest gainers were independents, many of whom were in fact Labour councillors who had quit or been deselected standing again. The Conservatives and Plaid Cymru made gains but both should be disappointed at not making more on a poor night for Labour.

The big question is whether that’s because in a lot of council areas independents were the natural “anti-Labour” vote and people will vote for the Tories in Wrexham, Newport, and so forth, or if they will return to Labour in June.

A lot hinges on who “the government” is

There’s a very clear historical trend in local elections: the government does worse than it does at general elections, the opposition does better.

In England, it’s very clear who that benefits. What’s less clear is who Scottish voters backing the Tories or voters abandoning Labour in Wales are treating as “the government”: is it the SNP administration in Edinburgh, the Labour government in Cardiff or the Tories in London?

That will shape whether June is simply a very bad defeat or a wipeout for the Conservatives’ opponents.  

The SNP’s continued support for PR does them credit everywhere but the ballot box

Advocates of a more proportional way of electing our MPs – like me – can sometimes sound as if we think it’s the solution to everything. Under PR, your politics will be gentler, your lover more attractive, your country less divided, etc. etc.

But nonetheless, the Scottish elections are highlighting that the SNP’s argument – that Scotland is ruled by a Conservative party no-one votes for – is harder to prosecute if you have a system that reflects votes not seats.

Yet the SNP remains one of the loudest defenders of proportionality, both in Scotland and at Westminster. Funny old world.