It is widely assumed by politicians and pundits alike that local elections are less about rubbish collection and street lights, than they are about national politics. Local polls offer voters the chance to pass judgment on national governments, and it is often a negative appraisal—hence the lament of “mid-term blues” by ministers in television studios on election night. There is indeed a lot to be said for the claim that national politics predominates. In the 1990s, the Conservatives withered away in local government as John Major’s unpopular administration governed in Westminster. The same fate befell Labour under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown a decade later.
That does not necessarily mean, however, that mid-term polls are a good indicator of which party will win the next general election. Local elections allow voters to say whether or not they are satisfied with the government’s performance to date. General elections, in contrast, ask voters which of the potential governments on offer they prefer. That is a very different question. It explains why a governing party may receive a severe kicking from the voters in mid-term locals but ease to victory when the national poll comes round. No matter how unpopular a government appears to be mid-term, its national strength will be threatened only if the major opposition party is a credible government-in-waiting.
On some occasions, that is indeed the case. In the 1976 local elections, which were held just a month after James Callaghan took over from Harold Wilson as Prime Minister, Labour suffered net losses of 1,300 council seats, while the Conservatives made net gains of over 1,700. The Labour government was punished for the turmoil of the economic crisis and industrial militancy that had engulfed it, but an increasingly credible Conservative alternative under Margaret Thatcher’s leadership pointed towards more than just mid-term blues. Another 1,300 net gains for the Conservatives the following year proved it was no fluke, and Labour went down to defeat in the 1979 general election.
“Michael Foot led Labour to net gains of almost 1,000 council seats—but did not look like a prime minister”
Similarly, the 1995 local elections were the first to be fought by Labour under Blair. He looked fresh and exciting, whereas John Major’s government was stale and divided. Labour made net gains of 1,800 seats, the Conservatives net losses of over 2,000. It was…