In data: local elections vs Westminster

What do the local elections tell us—if anything—about our national politics?
May 2, 2021

A cracked crystal ball

The council contests immediately before the last three general elections were hopeless predictors: a small lead for Labour in 2014 swung into reverse in 2015; Theresa May’s double-digit edge in May 2017 shrunk to 2 points that June; and while Labour held the Tories level in May 2019, Boris Johnson romped home in December.

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Local leaders

But over the decades, one clear pattern emerges: opposition parties on the path to power have steamed ahead by mid-term. From 1979 we have National Equivalent Vote shares, which suggest only leads of 12-points plus will suffice. Further back, Ted Heath’s storming of London in 1968 prefigured his surprise 1970 win, and Margaret Thatcher’s near 2-to-1 besting of Labour on seats in 1976 was also a sign of things to come.

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Remainia vs Leaveland: the Brexit factor

If forecasting is fraught, the locals can still make sense of the present—and in particular, tell us if Brexit divisions are fading. Steve Fisher’s two-part swingometer reveals how they have reshaped national voting since 2015, with a big shift to Labour in Remainia even as Leaveland swung sharply Tory.

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Analyst Lewis Baston suggests straws in the wind: if the Conservatives gain Cannock Chase or Labour loses Sunderland, the Brexit realignment continues; if the Tories lose Lancashire then something like “politics as we used to know it” could be on the way back.

Sources: Chart 1, House of Commons Library; Chart 2, Tony Travers, LSE and Wikipedia; Chart 3, Steve Fisher, University of Oxford. John Smith portrait: Allstar Picture Library Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo