What success in Thursday’s local elections looks like for each party

Politicians will inevitably exaggerate their parties’ performance in the polls. But what results do they really want?

May 04, 2022
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Photo: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Next weekend, will Boris Johnson claim to be a latter-day Lazarus? Will Labour predict that Keir Starmer is on his way to Downing Street? Will the Greens and Lib Dems boast that they have broken through? 

The answer to all these questions may well be “yes.” Local elections week has its own special rhythm. Ahead of polling day, each party uses private briefings to lower expectations; afterwards it uses every public outlet it can to exaggerate its performance. Each brags about local victories in some councils, while discounting losses elsewhere.

Ignore all that. Here is what each party must achieve to claim triumph once all the votes are counted. A word of warning: many of next weekend’s headlines will be about seats gained and lost. These are less reliable indicators of true performance than the projected national vote share. Seats targets are included here because net gains and losses will make the news, so it would be odd to omit them altogether.

Boris Johnson’s targets

  • Neck-and-neck with Labour in the projected national share of the vote would be a big achievement for the Tories. Labour has been ahead in every equivalent set of local elections in the past 40 years (that is, when the Conservatives have been in government, two years before the following general election
  • Net gain in seats. 2018 was the last time most of this year’s seats were fought. The Tories would love to improve on that baseline
  • Hold all seven (out of 32) London boroughs that the party is defending
  • Gain Plymouth, St Albans, North Herts, Peterborough, Southend, Tunbridge Wells
  • Retain support in red wall areas such as Barnsley and Sunderland
  • Beat Labour in the wards that make up the parliamentary constituencies of Uxbridge (where Johnson is the MP), Bury North (whose MP has crossed the floor from Tory to Labour) and Wakefield (by-election pending in this Tory marginal)
  • Keep second place in Scotland, ahead of Labour.

Keir Starmer’s targets

  • A lead of at least 8 per cent in the national vote share
  • Net gain of 250 seats. (Most of this week’s local elections are in strong Labour areas, such as London, big metropolitan cities, South Wales; the scope for further gains is real but limited)
  • In London, Labour could win up to four boroughs from the Conservatives: Barnet, Wandsworth, Hillingdon and Westminster. One gain: pass the hemlock. Two: get out the beer. Three: enjoy a glass of Prosecco. Four: celebrate with vintage champagne
  • Win outright in Worthing (for the first time ever), Southampton and a raft of northern councils, including Sheffield, Stockport, Burnley, West Lancashire, Kirklees and Rossendale
  • Make significant advances in Hull, Calderdale, Hastings and Stevenage, which Labour currently controls with small majorities
  • Overtake the Conservatives in Scotland—and the SNP in Glasgow.

Ed Davey’s targets

  • 20 per cent share of the projected national vote. In most years between 1982 and 2010, his party exceeded 20 per cent in local elections, where it usually outperformed its opinion poll rating. It came close in 2017 (18 per cent) and last year (17 per cent). Twenty per cent or more would show that the Lib Dems are back in business.
  • Net gain of 100 seats. The places matter as much as the numbers. Will the Lib Dems eat away at the Tory vote in the south as well as challenging Labour in the north?
  • Win outright in Hull, Portsmouth, Stockport; become the largest party in Sheffield
  • Win decisively in St Albans—captured last year with a majority of two.

Carla Denyer and Adrian Ramsey’s targets

  • The co-leaders of the Green Party will be looking for a net gain of 100 seats. Before 2019, fewer than 200 of Britain’s 20,000 councillors were Greens. Big gains in 2019 and last year took them close to 500. A further 100 gains would show they are maintaining their momentum. (Their projected national vote share means little, as they contest only a minority of wards.)
  • Gain seats in Sheffield and Norwich, two cities where they have a significant presence and need to consolidate their role as a major local force.

Alert readers will have spotted that Sheffield appears on three wish-lists and Hull and Stockport on two. This is because the Conservatives have been marginalised in all three cities, and the big battle is between Labour and the Lib Dems. 

If Labour falls short in Stockport and Sheffield, and loses its majority in Hull, this will underline the size of Starmer’s double challenge—not just fighting the Conservatives, but to prevent the Greens and Lib Dems from winning over progressive voters that Labour will need to attract at the next general election.