I have learned to wait before commenting on election results particularly since many local authorities now count on the Friday during the day to avoid the overtime bill and so unless one runs an exit poll, one can’t know until the weekend. Also, I’ve been away and avoiding the news but I wanted to make three points about the elections last week. Labour did well across the country, although there are one or two self-created greyclouds, Brexit is either less important or the pendulum has swung, and the Green’s finally get a result their positioning and polling deserves.

This is some controversy about how one projects from May 3rd to a general election which is likely to be held at least 12 months in the future. I am of the view the Labour did well and if last Thursday’s results were replicated across the country then there would be a Labour government with a solid working majority. Some disagree, and I link to the Guardian and Labour List opinions below; they both follow the Curtice line that these results are not good enough to get Labour a majority. I haven’t studied the statistical tools that they use, but if you plug the raw numbers into electoral calculus, it predicts a Labour absolute majority with a substantial Lib Dem presence in the new parliament. However, Curtice defends his view in an article in the independent, he argues that people don’t vote the same in a local election as they do for Westminster, he argues that the swing from the Tories to Labour is below that of its opinion poll lead, that winning seats in a first past the post election does not illustrate growing support, because Labour’s vote was not growing; it’s that the tories vote is collapsing.  He says,

On average across 27 constituencies where it is possible to use the BBC’s data to compare the parties’ performances in the local elections with that in the 2019 general election, the Conservative share of the vote was down 19 points while Labour’s own tally was unchanged.

Prof John Curtice, The Independent

There were some important wins, in the South of England, including the capture of Dover council by Labour and the election of one of the country’s leading refugee rights campaigners as a Labour councillor in Folkestone and Hythe. This is a good result for Labour stretching across the county. The Guardian says, about Labour,

Retaking Stoke-on-Trent and East Staffordshire councils from Conservative control, along with picking up seats and councils in the north-west, and across the West and east Midlands, suggests a potential return to Labour competitiveness in Westminster constituencies that voted heavily to leave the EU in 2016. Winning Thanet, Dover and Medway in Kent shows the post-Brexit dynamic could extend beyond the ‘red wall’, while capturing a perennial bellwether town like Swindon provides further encouragement.

The Guardian

It remains obvious that this is, like the polls, a Tory loss, and the Lib Dems and Greens both did well winning, 13 councils between them over 25% of the Tories’ losses.

EuActiv and Labour via the Guardian and Labour List are documenting the results as the return of Brexit voters to Labour.  This underestimates two factors, the first being that people have changed their minds now they see what a Tory Brexit looks like and the second being the effect of the changing demographics over the last seven years. Articulating the idea that, “your Brexit is safe with us”, or that “Brexit voters have returned to Labour” may not be as clever politics as the Labour front bench and their advisors think. Two pieces of evidence from last Thursday suggesting caution. The success of the Lib Dems and the Greens in winning council seats and vote share suggests again that tribal loyalty is weakening. Also the large cities and Scotland did not vote last Thursday; and these are areas where Labour’s young, educated and internationalist voters live i.e. while the Lib Dems seem to be taking Tory votes and seats in the shires, we have little recent evidence as to whether the core and majority of Labour’s 2019 vote will support a manifesto that only tinkers at the edges the cost of living crisis and continues to triangulate on relations with the EU. The timing of Labour’s statement on not abolishing tuition fees was particularly crass and Streeting’s defence of this appears to be a result of him reliving his past.

Furthermore the 2017 general election shows that the campaigns matter and polling leads can change dramatically. We could also consider the 1970 and 1992 campaigns which everyone expected Labour to win, but where its appeal was polluted by its anti-working class legislation and rhetoric.

Labour’s strategy seems to be based on winning back the red wall, mainly leave voting seats lost in 2019. The problem would seem to be that Labour strategists have a recidivist view of what those voters want. Their other problem being that even if they are successful in winning those seats, it takes Labour back to the 2015 results, which it lost and the risk is that in appealing to the imagined blue labour voters they will lose support in the cities (and frankly the red wall too in many of those seats the majority of Labour voters were also remain voters).

In Curtice’s response, he also says,

As well as claiming that the local election results showed that Labour was on course to win an overall parliamentary majority, Labour spokespersons were also keen to argue that they demonstrated that Sir Keir Starmer’s success in changing his party has transformed its electoral prospects. In truth, the local election results raise questions about that claim too. What is much more apparent is the scale of the public’s disenchantment with the Conservatives.

Prof John Curtice, The Independent

This is equally shown by the fact that another thing that Labour needs to worry about, is that it did badly in areas where the leadership pursued an aggressive interference in council candidate selection processes. In Liverpool, in Portsmouth and Leicester Labour lost seats to candidates that had either resigned, been expelled, or just deselected. I don’t expect the NEC to learn from this.

My final point is that the Green Party increased its vote share by two percentage points and won 481 council seats, taking control of one council and becoming the biggest party in one more.  They must now be considered a national party in contention and the media, in particular the BBC, must give them equal air time, and certainly more than the Reform Party or whatever the Faragistas are calling themselves today.

May elections, does the bell toll?
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One thought on “May elections, does the bell toll?

  • 10th May 2023 at 7:55 pm

    Professor Curtice wrote a reply to those who claim he underestimates Labour’ victory, I have amended my article to include some of his comments. Basically, he argues that Labour’s vote has not grown, but the Tories have collapsed.

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