The Conservatives did badly in last week’s elections. Badly enough to expect to be out of government after the next general election. Even allowing for the usual unwinding of the mid-term opposition gains and government losses, the results still point to a hung parliament, in which it is hard to imagine a friendless Tory party clinging on to power.
But much of the media commentary has shrunk from this conclusion, instead pronouncing something more like a draw, because at first glance the results look mixed for Labour, with gains in some places, especially in London, Scotland, and Wales, but losses in the north of England. This emerging narrative is awry.
To make sense of the outcome, we first need to remind ourselves of the ups and downs both main parties have experienced over the last five years. The baseline we measure results against inevitably determines how strong or weak they seem. But that baseline has varied a lot over time, and indeed across different parts of the UK.
In Scotland and Wales, which operate a five-yearly, “all-out” electoral cycle, the baseline is the 2017 local elections. These are the contests that came just before Theresa May blew her lead in her mis-firing general election. That spring, Labour lost over a hundred seats in each of England, Scotland, and Wales. In the Scottish and Welsh cases, it was not until this year that Labour had a chance to recover those losses. The 2022 recovery against them was limited, with net gains of +67 in Wales and only +20 in Scotland. In the Scotland in particular, given the grim starting point, this might seem underwhelming.
In England, by contrast, the reading of this year’s results has instead been coloured by the Jeremy Corbyn bounce that followed his unexpectedly strong 2017 general election. This was sufficiently sustained into 2018 for Labour to draw level with the Conservatives, with 35 per cent of the BBC Projected National Share (PNS) of the local election vote that year. On the up, Labour then made a net gain of 79 councillors, which sounds fairly modest, but built on gains they had previously made in 2014, when Ed Miliband’s opposition was picking up seats from David Cameron’s Tories. When, on their four-yearly cycle, these same English seats came up for election again this year, Labour found itself defending cumulative gains from four and eight years ago, and indeed, trying to defend over half the English seats in play before it could make any further inroads into Tory territory.
Clambering out of a canyon
It is relative to that 2018 baseline that commentators say Labour has made little, mixed, or even no progress at all. The party’s PNS is again at 35 per cent this year. And local elections inevitably bring lots of local variation around the average. If the average is no change, then the party is inevitably up in some places and down in others—if that never happened, there would be zero accountability for councillors. Which is where the few examples of the Tories moving forward while Labour slips back—Amber Valley, Nuneaton and Bedworth—creep in.
But local exceptions should not be allowed to distort the bigger picture, especially because this year’s variation was nothing special. The variation across wards in the change in the Labour share from 2018 to 2022 was about the same as what it was between 2014 and 2018.
The fact that Labour is on the same share of the vote as it was in 2018 does not suggest recent stagnation. Far from it—because a lot has happened since then. The party plummeted to 28 per cent in the PNS for the 2019 local elections, and lost the general election that year with its lowest tally of Commons seats since 1935. As late as last year, Labour really was stalling—its 29 per cent share up just one point on May 2019.
By contrast, Labour’s six-point rise since then is one of its best year-on-year performances since the PNS was first calculated in 1983. It has only surpassed that increase in seven out of the 38 occasions where it is possible to calculate change since the previous year. It is comparable to the seven-point rise from 2017 to 2018, which followed the collapse in the credibility of May’s “strong and stable” government. Because Labour went on to suffer such a big fall in 2019, it had to make significant progress simply to match its 2018 performance.
Having tumbled into a canyon, Labour is back up the other side. The political cliché would have it that the party still has a mountain to climb, but maybe not. The local elections PNS this year (Con 30, Lab 35, LD 19) is not far off the 2005 general election share of the vote (Con 33, Lab 36, LD 22). Back then, Tony Blair won a comfortable 66-seat majority with just a three-point lead. Starmer secured a five-point lead last week.
Admittedly, assuming the 2019 geographic distribution of the votes continues to hold, then last week’s local-vote shares suggest Labour would be the largest party in a hung parliament. But electoral geography can and does change: Blair could do more with less of a vote share because the geography used to be more favourable to Labour. The big question is whether Labour can have reason to hope it might become so again. One of its problems, through the years of Corbyn and Brexit, has been votes piling high in the cosmopolitan cities, but falling away in the more numerous seats made up of smaller towns which mostly went for Brexit.
From two nations to one-nation Labour
“Leaveland” has come to dominate electoral geography since the 2016 referendum, because 63 per cent of constituencies have an estimated majority of Leave voters. That in turn has favoured the Conservatives, especially at the last election, when they consolidated the Leave vote to “deliver Brexit.” As a result, Labour lost seats they had previously held for decades. Even though 52 per cent of the vote in the 2019 general election was for parties that backed a second referendum on EU membership, the Conservatives won 56 per cent of the seats.
Last year’s local elections only confirmed the swing of Leaveland seats to the Conservatives, and the swing away from them in “Remainia.” Relative to the 2018 locals, there is the same pattern in the swing this year—but now only on the Conservative side. The Tory vote again fell back more in Remain areas, but this year, Labour advanced no further there, and indeed fared no worse in the areas that most decisively voted for Brexit.
The main reason Labour lost some seats and councils in the most Brexit-backing areas (places which went Leave by 60+ per cent in 2016) was not because the Labour vote was falling much there, but because the Conservative vote was holding up better on average, and—in such wards in the north—actually edging up in 2018. However, this is a relatively small proportion of seats nationwide.
Of the six councils that Labour lost, three voted Remain and three voted Leave: an even split. Within those three Leaveland losses, Neath Port Talbot was lost to independents, Hull to the pro-European Liberal Democrats. Still more remarkably, it was Green success that caused Labour to lose Leave-voting Hastings. The nature of the councils Labour lost and the way it lost them defies the idea of Labour falling further back in areas that voted Leave.
What about the idea that Labour’s progress has been concentrated in London and other areas that voted Remain? Labour gained control of 12 councils. Most, seven, of them had voted for Brexit: Bridgend, Blaenau Gwent, Kirklees, Worthing, Crawley, Rossendale, and Southampton.
(London-based) media coverage of Remain-voting Barnet, Wandsworth and Westminster might have been more prominent, but those unusual councils were a minority of Labour’s gains. The wider—and more important—story was of Labour’s progress since last year actually being stronger in Leaveland than Remainia, indicating a partial unwind of the Brexit partisan divide.
Across 590 English wards outside London which held elections both last year and this year, detailed results compiled by the BBC show the Labour share up three points on average in wards that are estimated to have voted Remain, but by twice that in wards that voted Leave. Far from failing to make progress in Leaveland, Labour made disproportionate progress there. And if it could replicate that in a general election, this would be much to the party’s advantage.
Within Remainia, Labour advanced less because the spoils from the Tory decline were evenly split between Labour, the Liberal Democrats and, in some places, the Greens. Both the Lib Dems and Greens put in their best performances in areas that voted Remain. The Liberal Democrat success in West Oxfordshire and Wokingham deprived Conservatives of control of the council. The Greens had another strong showing this year, but were up by less than a point since last year and still field many fewer candidates than their bigger rivals.
Again, if this pattern of relative strength among the opposition parties were repeated at a general election, it would be to Labour’s advantage. There are many more constituencies with Leave majorities than Remain ones. The Tories are defending just 71 constituencies that voted Remain, but 294 that voted Leave. If the decline of the Conservative general election vote goes overwhelmingly to Labour in Leave areas, as it has done in the locals since last year, that should help Labour pick up relatively more seats than it would do under the standard assumption of uniform change. Any informal pact between Labour, the Lib Dems and Greens would reinforce this, as would increased tactical voting between supporters of those parties, of which there were some signs this year.
In sum, not only has Labour bounced back a long way in the last 12 months, but it has actually bounced back further in communities that voted Leave. The continuing strength of the Tory vote in these areas has blinded some commentators to this, and further confusion is caused by reliance on a baseline from 2018, a point when the Brexit realignment still had a long way further to go. But insofar as Labour is concerned, that realignment may have now run its course, and appears to be starting to unwind—which could be as good for its prospects as the original realignment proved to be ruinous.