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28 April 2021

What would be a good night for Labour in the 2021 local elections?

Local elections are like political health checks, telling us how Labour is faring and what – and where – it needs to improve.

By Stephen Bush

Lockdown and the delay of the 2020 local elections has helpfully allowed me to avoid an impossible task: setting out a reasonable set of benchmarks for what would have been some of the weirdest local elections ever.

Electoral politics is always in a process of realignment, with some places moving towards a party and some moving away in both good years and bad. But the 2016 Brexit vote accelerated a number of trends that were already present in British politics, and for that reason looking at the 2016 local elections feels a bit like looking at elections from another planet.

The 2016 local election results were bad for Labour, yet it still comfortably won the council elections in Cannock Chase, something it was unable to do two years later in a much better set of local election results overall. It also finished miles off the pace in councils such as Worthing, where it has since made significant gains, and did poorly in Trafford, another area it has done well in in good and bad years since the 2016 Brexit vote.

So it would be hard to say with confidence what a “good” result would look like in these contests, just because so much has changed. (The police and crime commissioner elections will provide us with a cleaner picture because they are held across bigger areas and use the supplementary vote system, so some of the realignments that have happened since 2016 were being enforced by this electoral system: Ukip votes were already going to the Conservatives on second preferences, so its collapse is not as significant.)

Fortunately, the elections are being held on the same day as when the councils last fought in 2017, meaning we will be able to get a good idea overall: Labour should be making gains from 2017 in the county councils, particularly those in marginal seats like DerbyshireLeicestershireLincolnshireNorthamptonshire and Nottinghamshire. (There are a handful of exceptions, like Staffordshire, where I think it’s reasonable to believe that the Conservatives will make gains even in a bad set of elections for the party, just as we’d expect them to make further losses in London almost regardless.)

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In addition, Labour should, on a good night for the party, be able to show a widening of its support base: that it is winning votes in towns as well as cities. If it can do that while keeping its back door locked, preventing a resurgence for the Liberal Democrats and ending the recent trend of Green gains, so much the better.

Frequently asked questions

But there’s no way Labour will win [x]?

These are not predictions, but benchmarks: I’m not saying this is what will happen, I am saying this is what would have to happen for the party in question to say with a straight face that it has had a good night.

Jeremy Corbyn failed to hit the benchmarks you set in 2016 and 2017 yet he gained seats in the 2017 general election. He hit them in 2018 and lost the general election badly in 2019. In addition, he did better even in the 2019 general election than he did in the 2019 local and European elections. Isn’t this a pointless and nerdy exercise with no real value?

Screw you and the horse you rode in on.

Is that a “yes, this is a pointless and nerdy exercise?”

No! Local election results are like health checks: just because you get a clean set of blood tests from your GP, it doesn’t mean that you are going to live to be 100. And if your GP says you need to eat less and exercise more, it doesn’t mean that you are doomed to die of a heart attack at 35. The local elections will tell us a bit about the strength of the political parties and their current electoral “to-do” lists. It won’t tell us if they are definitely going to win or lose the next election, but it will allow us to talk about their strengths and weaknesses with real clarity.

What about the mayoral races?

I don’t know. We haven’t had very many of them and the evidence from our oldest mayoralty is that they are less subject to the winds of nationwide approval. As such, I have not included them in this series.