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

As usual, for the governing party, simply avoiding disaster is a good thing.

By Stephen Bush

What is the most important issue facing the United Kingdom? According to most voters, it’s the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting lockdown. What is the only way to end a pandemic? Vaccines and palliative treatments. What is the United Kingdom currently doing well? Vaccines!

As such, it is difficult to imagine a better backdrop to the local elections across England for the ruling Conservatives (though it is more complicated in Scotland and Wales, where to differing extents the SNP and Labour-Liberal Democrat governments can point to their own successful roll-outs). It may be enough for them to exceed the usual yardstick for a governing party, which is simply to avoid getting absolutely stuffed.

So does that mean that these local elections are useless as a political indicator? That’s the question I’ve been asked about every single one of this year’s set of benchmarks: isn’t it grossly unfair for me to set out what Keir Starmer should be doing in order to win the next election, or what Ed Davey should be doing, or what Sian Berry and Jonathan Bartley should be doing? How can we possibly assess how an opposition party is doing when the incumbent government enjoys such favourable circumstances?

I think this is true up to a point. The economic context for the Conservative Party from 1992 to 1997 was exceptionally good: the economy was growing, inflation was low and so too were interest rates. Nonetheless, it lost by-elections and local councillors at an astonishing rate and went on to its worst-ever defeat in 1997. That Tony Blair’s Labour Party were more than comfortably clearing the benchmarks for what a successful opposition party ought to be doing was meaningful. By the time of the Conservative defeat in the Wirral South by-election in February 1997, the failure of a return to growth (after the UK’s exit from the European exchange rate mechanism in 1992) to restore Tory fortunes was a pretty good sign that nothing would.

And you know, if the Conservatives were to, in the middle of a world-leading vaccine roll-out – and while most of us are basking in the freedom to go outside, visit a pub or restaurant, or stay in a hotel – do even as badly in these local elections as they did in, say, 2014, it would probably be a pretty big warning sign.

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I still think, despite my concerns about several aspects of Keir Starmer’s political strategy, it is more significant that Boris Johnson’s lead on the question of “best prime minister” and his approval rating is only about the same size as Theresa May’s during the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire. I simply don’t believe, given the forthcoming £17bn of cuts to unprotected departments, the increase in cyber-crime, and the government’s necessary-but-controversial programme to get the United Kingdom to net zero, that the Conservatives are going to be in as good a political position for most of this parliament as they will be over the coming months, as we unlock further and the British economy returns to growth post-lockdown. I think there is a really good case for this point in the parliament being remembered as “peak Tory” regardless of whether they are re-elected.

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Now that may not matter: there is quite a big range of electoral scenarios that lie between “in the midst of a successful vaccine roll-out and the return of our freedoms” to “the public realm visibly creaking at the seams, crime rocketing up the public’s list of concerns, and an as-yet-unforeseen public policy disaster that can be directly attributed to cronyism or incompetence”. Many of those possibilities would see the Tories re-elected.

Nonetheless, I struggle to imagine better circumstances for the Conservatives than the present ones: they have a clear and popular solution to the pressing problem of the day and the economy is growing.

So I think these local elections are a useful yardstick for the peak Conservative performance in an off-year election. Now, even in an off-year in great circumstances, I think we can still expect the governing party’s performance to be a little suppressed, so if a general election were to be held on the same day as these local elections, we would expect them to do better still. But the useful indicator here for the Tories, I think, will be seeing what the upper limits of their current electoral coalition are, facing this set of political opponents.

Frequently asked questions

Isn’t this just, essentially, a FAQ answer in of itself?

Look, I had to stretch out “Don’t lose more than 200 council seats” into a proper article somehow.

I think that Keir Starmer should be doing better and these aren’t the ideal circumstances for an incumbent.

You may be right! That’s how we learn stuff: by having clear points of disagreement that we can check against future results. I feel very confident in saying that, win or lose, a general election between Boris Johnson’s Conservatives and Keir Starmer’s Labour Party will see Labour do better than implied by these local elections. If they don’t, I will learn something! If they do, I will also learn something.

What about the metro-mayoral results?

We haven’t had enough of them for me to have any particularly useful yardsticks. I hope to make some very tentative conclusions on them after they happen. 

In an era of growing electoral volatility, of the kind you’ve written about previously, are off-year elections losing any value as an analytic tool?

Yes and no. I think the greater volatility of the electorate means they have less and less value as a predictive tool about electoral performance in the future. I think they continue to be a really useful health check about a party in the present – and give us a sense of their areas of strength and vulnerability.