Local Government Elections: who should be worrying?

30 Apr 2018

External Affairs Officer Sam Lamont discusses what parties can realistically hope for in the upcoming Local Council Elections, and what they should be most afraid of.

Polling is no longer trusted as a respectable barometer for national political feeling. How could it be, after its most respected augurs and soothsayers have repeatedly been unable to predict election results? Instead, we search around for other measures. By-elections are watched with bated breath, and speeches by senior political figures on both sides of the house spark suppositions on the result of May 2022 (yes, it’s probably going to be a full Parliament).

In this political murk, council elections are often seized on as a guiding light, revealing a little of the current will of the voting public. Yes, they have their issues – there is generally a far lower turnout than national elections, so the results tend to represent the views of the more politically engaged. The size and nature of council wards allow people to win on single-issue hyper-local concerns, such as targeted NIMBY-ism, the threatened closure of a school or hospital, or bin collection. Nonetheless, they are one of the premier battlegrounds of the UK political landscape, and until the EU referendum in 2016, they were second only to Westminster elections in importance.

The local elections looming on May 3rd have been widely predicted as an open goal for Labour. This prediction is built on a tentative foundation of polling data and perceived public ill-feeling over the government’s infighting about Brexit, and more recently its active role in the Windrush debacle. It is true too that in the case of council elections, fortune favours the opposition – historically the governing party tends to receive a drubbing at a local level, as those who would vote for them nationally attempt to send a message about various unpopular policies. So are Labour going to romp to victory on Thursday?

Well, unfortunately for those who like regular seismic change in UK politics, there is a hard limit to Labour success – while they will almost undoubtedly make gains, Ed Miliband’s achievements in 2014 have left them with a platform that they will be hard pressed to improve on significantly. Yes, they will win more seats, but these seats are likely to be in already labour dominated councils – Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, etc. Hard gains (i.e. control of a new council) are plausible in some areas, such as Trafford or Barnet (although the antisemitism furore has thrown the second into jeopardy), but mostly Labour will simply cement holdings rather than gain new ones.

On the other side of the chamber, the Tories will be looking to mitigate damage. This is very much a siege rather than a pitched battle, and their best hope is to weather Labour’s electoral storm rather than actively attempt to win councils. The party spin machine is already working to shine a positive light on likely defeats: the benchmark they seem to be setting for a successful campaign is the retention of control of Bexley Council, where they have currently have a healthy majority (32 more seats than Labour, the next largest party).

It would be cruel to ignore the Lib Dems, who suffered in the 2014 elections from being part of the ruling coalition – they lost 310 councillors and two councils. Vince Cable’s party have always punched above their weight on a local level, especially compared to their current state in Parliament, so they are likely to make small, but significant (to them) gains, given that they are starting from such a rock-bottom position. Their grassroots campaigners have historically been the envy of the other two parties – not having much to do on a national level gives a lot of time to focus on localities – so they may well have a chance to reclaim one of their previously controlled councils (Portsmouth and Kingston-Upon-Thames), or even both. It is hard to predict with any surety, however, as the Lib Dems are still a corrupted brand: their spell in government has rendered them incapable of returning to ‘protest party’ status and tarnished their friendly party-next-door image. Their new identity as the self-proclaimed anti-Brexit party did didn’t seem to have great impact at the last general election (four more MPs), but this may play out better at a local level.

With six days to go, it is still impossible to predict exactly what will happen. So, who needs to worry? Labour: very little, unless they want to strike a crushing blow at government. Conservatives: quite a lot, but they’ll do their best to pretend they don’t. Lib Dems: who knows? And as for the property industry, the BPF is ready, willing, and able to work with local government of all shades. So not a lot.