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6 May 2021updated 07 May 2021 9:28am

The known unknowns of the 2021 local elections

There are a couple of questions I don't have answers to – but I know these local elections will provide them.

By Stephen Bush

While the results of the local and devolved elections are, of course, unknowable until they happen, there are a couple of distinct things I am looking to learn from them. Some of those I don’t know I’ll learn because they’re unknown unknowns. But some of them are known unknowns: things that whatever happens, the result will help me to better understand. Here are some of them. 

[Hear more on the New Statesman podcast]

Is Brexit still with us? 

Two councils are at the opposite ends of recent changes in the support base for the two main parties: in the last set of local elections before the 2016 referendum, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour won the council elections in Cannock Chase but lost heavily in Worthing, while David Cameron’s Conservatives won well in Worthing and lost heavily in Cannock Chase. It was the last time either party did so.

In both good elections and bad since the referendum for the big two parties, the Conservatives have overperformed in Cannock Chase relative to their national performance, and underperformed in Worthing, while Labour has done the reverse.

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The dream for the Conservatives would be an unwinding of their recent struggles in Worthing, but no sign of a concomitant revival for Labour in Cannock Chase, while the reverse would of course apply for Labour.

These two councils aren’t the be-all and end-all in terms of who has a “good night” in this set of local elections. But they may well be more revealing in terms of who has a good future.

What happens when a mayoral election coincides with local elections? 

We know that, even in years when the governing party is doing well and the opposition party badly, opposition parties do better than they “should” in local elections compared to national polling. In 1998 and 2017, both disastrous years for the opposition parties and good ones for the government, New Labour and Theresa May’s Conservatives did less well than their nationwide polling would have suggested.

But when local elections are held on the same day as general elections, that boosts the governing party: that is particularly the case if the governing party is being re-elected, but it is true even in years like 1997 and 2010, when the governing party is being turfed out of office. We call this a “down-ticket” effect: John Major, Gordon Brown or David Cameron are the “top” of the ticket, and their support base boosts their party’s council candidates. That meant that even as the Conservatives were going down to their worst-ever defeat in 1997, they were gaining councillors. John Major’s Tories gained 193 councillors in 1997, while Gordon Brown’s Labour picked up 417 in 2010. We can also call this effect “coat-tails”, as in “193 councillors were elected on Major’s coat-tails”.

One theoretical benefit of directly elected mayors is that they are better placed to withstand national changes in opinion and be elected and re-elected on their own merits: this results in a more accountable form of local government because you don’t have the well-known problem that highly effective councils get turfed out just because their party is doing badly nationally.

There is a good amount of evidence that this is the case, electorally speaking. (Whether this actually leads to better local governance is a separate question.) In 2008, Ken Livingstone did significantly better than the Labour Party had in local elections in London in 2006, despite the fact that Labour had been just 4 percentage points behind the Conservatives in May 2006 and was more than 10 points behind in May 2008. In May 2017, Andy Burnham did much much better than the Labour Party would across the region in June 2017, despite the fact that Labour was doing a lot better in June 2017 than it was in May. And in 2012, Boris Johnson was re-elected as mayor of London during a disastrous set of elections for the Conservatives, in what must surely be the most politically significant of all the “against-the-tide” electoral performances by British mayors.

But what we don’t have much evidence for one way or the other, because we’ve never done it before, is whether mayors have “down-ticket” effects of their own.  We can see a bit with the London Assembly in 2008 that Livingstone seemed to boost the performance of Labour overall but the 2012 London Assembly elections, where Labour’s performance in the assembly exceeded Livingstone’s personal tally, might suggest that this was just a coincidence.

[see also: What did we do to deserve the London mayoral election?]

That the delayed 2020 elections are being held on the same day as the 2021 ones means that we will get a lot of evidence one way or another!

At the same time as Andy Burnham is running for re-election as Greater Manchester mayor, there are local elections across all ten of the conurbation’s local authorities. This might matter a great deal, because Burnham did considerably better in his mayoral race than a generic Labour candidate: in May 2017, he polled 17 points ahead of the Labour Party in the 2015 general election, during a much worse set of nationwide results for Labour. In no borough in the combined authority did he fail to win an absolute majority, and, on average, he polled more than 20 points above the Labour Party in the 2016 council elections across the conurbation.

It seems to me to be pretty far-fetched to imagine that these overlapping contests won’t effect each other in some way, whether in blunting Burnham’s own advantage and diluting his personal vote, or in significantly inflating the performance of Labour candidates across the conurbation. If Burnham gets a little bit closer to the “generic” Labour performance it won’t matter (other than you imagine it would be personally annoying if you were Andy Burnham). But if Burnham lifts up the Labour Party – let’s say that he adds 10 points to the Labour share, ie that about half of the voters who backed Andy Burnham but not Labour in 2017 back both Burnham and Labour this time, then we are going to see some pretty off-the-chart Labour gains across the combined authority.

I have heard some reports from the various campaigns that this is happening, but as one Labour councillor reflected to me, it is hard to tell the difference between someone who voted for Burnham in 2017 and the Conservatives in 2019 who says, “Yeah, sure I love Andy! And I’ll vote Labour for the council, of course”, because they love Andy and are simply being polite, and someone who voted for Burnham in 2017 and the Tories in 2019 saying the same thing because they actually mean it.

So I am intrigued to see what happens across Greater Manchester.

What happens when it doesn’t?

So, here’s a weird thing: Birmingham moving from electing in thirds to electing all in one go, coupled with the 2020 and 2021 local elections being held together, means that in the West Midlands mayoralty, every council other than Birmingham itself in the combined authority is up for election.

I think all things being equal we will look back on this election and go “wow, Labour councillors in Birmingham got lucky” that they weren’t up for election because, just as I think it is more likely than not that Andy Burnham’s personal vote will result in some frankly improbable and never-to-be-repeated Labour gains at a council level, I think it is more likely than not that Conservative mayor Andy Street’s personal vote will do the same across the West Midlands combined authority.

But the other possibility, and one raised and dismissed by Labour and Conservatives across the area, is that actually it has the reverse effect. In Solihull for instance, the Conservatives have a three-cornered fight against the Greens, the Liberal Democrats, and the Labour Party, in that order. But it is in Street’s interests not to go hard against the Greens and the Liberal Democrats but to lovebomb them (indeed, Street’s leaflets are for the most part in a fetching shade of green themselves!). The Tories have a choice between maximising the vote for Street and maximising their own hopes of retaining control of the council.

Whereas in Birmingham, the Labour Party can just focus on getting as many people out to vote for Liam Byrne, whether as a first or second preference, and don’t really need to worry about whether the way they do this will create problems for Labour council candidates fighting the Liberal Democrats in Perry Barr.

I personally think this outcome is unlikely, and that it will be much more likely that the story of the election is a twofold disaster for Labour, in which there is lower turnout in Birmingham, and in which their joy in Greater Manchester council elections will be their discomfort in West Midlands ones.

[see here for the latest on the 2021 English local election results]