Local elections are supposed to be about deciding who controls councils, but the results this year reflect both the overall balance of support for the main parties in England and the increasing social and geographical divisions between them.
The 4407 seats up for election yesterday come from a mainly urban set of 150 (out of 326) councils in England. They were last fought in 2014, at the same time as the European Parliament elections. Back then Ed Miliband managed just a 2 point lead in the BBC local elections Projected National Share of the vote (PNS). The swing in the PNS since 2014 this year is 1 point to the Tories. As a result, the Conservatives and Labour are equally on 35 per cent in the PNS. So these local election results confirm the impressions from the opinion polls of both the levels and trends in support for the two main parties.
Opposition parties normally win local elections. Since records began, albeit only since 1982, the oppositions that have gone on to win the next general election have won double digit leads in all the preceding local elections, starting with those in the immediate post-election year. Not only is Labour far from having a 10-point lead, the fact that it has no lead at all should be deeply disappointing.
Some Labour supporters may comfort themselves with the observation that the 11 point Tory lead in the PNS at last year’s local elections collapsed within the space of a month to a 2.5 point general election lead. That experience was a salutary lesson that public opinion can change dramatically. But that does not mean that we should expect the Conservatives to run a similarly disastrous campaign in the future.
While Labour did poorly, the Conservatives cannot rest easy. Their performance does not indicate that they would most likely regain their majority at the next general election. Aggregating detailed ward level votes collected by the BBC to the parliamentary constituencies of which they are part suggests that the Conservatives would, on the basis of these local election results, gain a few seats from Labour (in places such as Battersea, Derby North and Wirral West). However, the Tories would also lose some to the Liberal Democrats (including Cheadle, Hazel Grove and Southport). Despite being up by only 3 points in the PNS, the Liberal Democrats managed to do especially well in places where they were fighting a two-way battle with the Conservatives, and so look likely to make net gains of about 50 council seats.
The Conservatives have so far made 163 seat gains and suffered 165 losses. As a result they will likely end the day with a similar overall tally as the one they started with. Most, 89, of the Conservative losses were in London, and most, 132, of their gains were outside London. This differential in the Tory performance is part of a broader pattern whereby the Conservatives won more votes and seats in places which were more supportive of Brexit. As a result, the councils the party has won (Basildon, Peterborough, Redditch) are all places that voted to leave the EU at a rate of 61 per cent or more in 2016.
The exception to this rule tells an important story linked to the row over anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. Of the wards across the country where the BBC collected the votes, Labour is up by just 3 points where more than 4 per cent of the population is Jewish, but the party is up by 7 points on average elsewhere. This correlation had a particular impact in both Barnet and Bury where the Jewish population is relatively large. That Labour not only failed to take its (notionally) easiest target in London, but the Conservatives actually managed to gain six seats and take control of Barnet (where 62 per cent voted Remain) is quite remarkable.
The councils that the Conservatives have so far lost control of (Mole Valley, Richmond, South Cambridgeshire and Trafford) were all in strongly Remain voting areas. But again, there is one exception indicative of a key feature of the results of this election. Despite the 61 per cent Leave vote there, Plymouth switched from Tory to Labour control because of the collapse of Ukip.
While most of Ukip’s victories in 2014 came in formerly Conservative wards, some, such as those in Plymouth were formerly Labour. Even though the Conservatives have benefitted most from the collapse of Ukip’s vote, both in general and across Plymouth, Labour appears to have secured a substantial part of the former Ukip vote. In Plymouth it was enough for Labour to win back two wards and control. Overall, the Ukip seat tally has fallen from 125 to just 3. Across the BBC wards results from 50 councils its vote share has fallen from an average of 15 points to just 1 point.