Local elections are no longer the predictor they once were. So let's stop using them as a general election barometer—and realise that local politics matters for its own sakeby Eve Livingston / May 5, 2018 / Leave a comment
Depending on who you’ve been listening to since polling closed, yesterday’s local election results can be comfortably placed anywhere on a scale from Jeremy Corbyn’s immediate resignation to an outright loss for the Conservatives in the next general election—quite an achievement for a set of results which show, ultimately, nothing very much has changed.
It is precisely because the results of local elections can be spun as anything for anyone that, on a national level, they end up meaning very little at all. With these council races marking the first time large swathes of the UK have visited the polls since last year’s snap general election, the results were always going to serve as an electoral thermometer. And historically they have been a fairly accurate one, with traditional wisdom holding that opposition parties on track to win general elections should generally overperform in local votes.
But the accuracy of this measure has been shaken since the last Labour government: projections from 2014 local election results predicted a majority for Ed Miliband in the Commons, while 2017’s snap election saw Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour become the first opposition party to perform better in a general election than the local elections prior.
There are any number of reasons why local elections provide little indication of the outcomes of a hypothetical national election. Expectation management, for example, is a bigger issue in local contests with smaller electorates where parties need to strike a balance between convincing voters and activists that they can win, whilst also ensuring they turn out to knock doors and vote.
Electorates themselves also matter: they can be so small as to decide multiple wards on a handful of votes, and hyperlocal or demographic issues are represented in the results in a way that is less certain at constituency level—Barnet’s Jewish community, for instance, may compose a big enough proportion of council voters to make their voices heard on Labour’s anti-semitism scandals, but their influence is likely to be diluted at parliamentary level.
And different contexts play to different parties’ strengths: Labour’s diverse coalition of students, lower-income families and BME voters are generally less likely to turn out locally, and their mass movement approach lends itself better to utopian debates about…