Friday morning's take: disastrous for Labour, good for the Conservatives, complicated for the SNPby Peter Kellner / May 6, 2016 / Leave a comment
Normally, local and regional elections produce big changes which the losing party tries to play down. Scotland apart, the overnight results from this year’s contests have produced less dramatic shifts than normal, and may well dominate the news agenda for a shorter time than normal, especially if talk of a challenge to Jeremy Corbyn dies down for the time being.
However, if we dig below the surface, some telling points emerge. Here are some provisional observations with more results still to come, especially from London—we await various results from the city including those for its Mayoral race.
In England, the Conservatives have done well for a governing party after six years in power, but not quite as well as they hoped. They have suffered a three per cent swing to Labour since the equivalent local elections last year, on the same day as the general election. They hoped for a smaller swing, but their vote has held up far better than governing parties in the past.
In contrast, Labour has done badly, albeit not as catastrophically as it feared. It looks like ending up with a net loss of fewer than 50 council seats, not the widely-expected 150. Nevertheless, though Labour has done slightly better than last year, the BBC estimates that its average vote share is four per cent down on 2012. This is bad for a party hoping to regain power nationally at the next general election. Unless today’s counts give Labour clear net gains, this will be the first time for more than 30 years than an opposition party has lost ground in council elections. Likewise, yesterday’s two parliamentary by-elections, in Ogmore and Sheffield, produced the expected Labour holds, but no surge in the party’s support. By any standard other than the pre-election predictions, yesterday was disastrous for Labour.
In general, it looks as if Labour’s support held up best in the south, and proved increasingly fragile further north. The party retained southern councils that the party feared it would lose, such as Southampton, Exeter and Crawley. London looks likely to conform to this pattern later today. If the polls are right, Sadiq Khan will win comfortably, and the size of his win, and of the votes for the Greater London Assembly, will also show a modest swing to Labour since last year’s general election, when the party enjoyed a 9 per cent lead over the Tories. The real test today will be the votes for the GLA. Labour outpolled the Tories by nine points in the last Assembly elections in 2012 as well as last year’s general election. Will Labour today win the GLA by the 15-20 points it would need to be able to claim real progress in the capital?
Labour’s worst performances last night were in Wales (down eight percentage points since the last equivalent elections in 2011) and Scotland (down nine). But this time, the beneficiaries have been not the nationalist parties but the Right: Ukip in Wales and the Conservatives in Scotland. Indeed, the Tories have overtaken Labour to become the official opposition at Holyrood. For Labour to come third in a country it used to dominate is truly startling.
The SNP have reason to celebrate—but also to have twinges of concern about the future. Its vote is broadly the same as in 2011 (up a little in the constituency vote, down a little in the regional vote), but down on last year’s stellar result in the general election. At the time of writing, it looks as if the SNP will fall two seats short of an overall majority. One reason for the SNP doing not quite as well as it hoped is that there are signs, especially in Edinburgh, that voters who fear independence have voted tactically to support the unionist party with the best chance of defeating the SNP locally. If this happens at the next general election, and accompanies a further downward drift in the SNP’s overall support, then the party may not be quite as dominant in 2020 as it was in 2015. And for those contemplating a second independence referendum, it’s worth pointing out that, together, the three main unionist parties, Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat, enjoyed a 6 per cent lead over the SNP yesterday. This contrasts with a 4 per cent lead for the SNP over the combined vote of three unionist parties last year.