The 2018 Local Elections Briefing: What is national equivalent vote and what should we expect?

April 20, 2018

As the results come in on 3rd May, one piece of data that we will receive is the National Equivalent Share (NEV) or Projected National Share (PNS). Elections are not taking place across the whole of Great Britain and, therefore, the areas that are up for election may have a bias towards one party or another. For example, at the 2017 local elections, the majority of wards that were up for election were in areas of traditional strength for the Conservatives such as the shires. This year, the wards that are up are in traditional safe Labour territory such as London and the metropolitan boroughs. The PNS/NEV is a calculation of how the national popular vote would look if the whole country had voted and gives a very rough idea of how the country would have voted had a general election been held on the same day.


At local elections during the 2010 to 2015 parliament, neither the Conservatives nor Labour managed to top 40 percent of the national equivalent vote but, the Labour Party managed to edge out leads in 2012, 2013 and 2014. Spoiler, Labour still lost, and lost badly, at the general election in 2015. In a similar vein, the Conservatives had an advantage over Labour in 2002, 2003 and 2004 with Labour even finishing in third place behind the Liberal Democrats in 2004. Despite this, the 2005 general election saw a clear third term Labour victory and the Liberal Democrats remained firmly in third place. It is possible to go on and look at the local elections in most electoral cycles from 1979 and drawing a similar conclusion, the results of individual sets of local elections have very little correlation with the ensuing general election.


There is, however, some fruit in looking at the national equivalent vote from each set of local elections since the previous election to judge whether or not the government will be re-elected. To precipitate a change of government, it would seem that the challenging party must finish in first place at all of the local elections in the parliament and top 40 percent of the vote at least once. (this does not include the set of local elections held shortly after the general election as in 1992) From 1992 to 1997, Labour managed this and from 2005 to 2010, the Conservatives did the same. In both cases, the challenging party went on to win the next general election either as the largest party or with an overall majority. In the 1979 to 1983, 1987 to 1992 and 2010 to 2015 parliaments, the governing party topped the poll at least once in local elections and then went on to get re-elected at the following general election. The only time that this pattern does not hold true is the 2001 to 2005 parliament, the Conservatives topped the poll every time in local contests, but the Labour Party went on to be re-elected in a landslide in 2001. The Conservatives did, however, fail to surpass the 40 percent mark between 2001 and 2005 and it is possible that that is also a defining factor. Or, perhaps, local elections follow different rules depending on whether Labour or the Conservatives are in power. Of course, it is impossible to know whether this is a false correlation but, looking at general and local elections from 1983 to 2015, the pattern seems to hold true. 2015-2017 is a slightly different situation, largely down to the fact that 2017 was a ‘snap’ poll and thus, there were only one true set of local elections where voters weren’t voting in the shadow of an imminent general election. 


In 2014, the Labour Party came out on top by the whisker of a single percentage point on 31 percent to the Conservatives’ 30. UKIP scored 18 percent, the Liberal Democrats 11 and the others nine. 


For an opposition of four years, it was obvious that things were not looking as good as they should have done for the Labour Party to win the next election. At the time, the opinion polls were showing a lead of around 2 and a half points for Labour, with the party standing at just over 35 percent in the average of the last six polls before polling day. Both Labour and the Conservative underperformed their poll position and the strong performance from UKIP led to criticism of Ed Miliband and an acknowledgement that the Eurosceptic party was eating into the Labour vote in its northern heartlands. Under Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party were projected 33 percent to the Conservatives’ 31 in 2016 whilst in 2017, the party trailed the Conservatives by 11-points, unprecedented for an opposition party of seven years. 


This time round, the Labour Party will be looking to finish ahead of the Conservatives and should be looking to finish well ahead of them. If historic precedent is anything to go by, they need to win this contest well and every other local contest between now and 2022 in order to be reasonably confident of victory on a national level and even then, there is no certainty of a Labour government. Theoretically, the councils being fought this time round should be relatively easy for the Labour Party to do well in on account of the fact that many of them are in metropolitan areas. On that basis, the party should be looking to finish ahead of the Conservatives by a decent margin. The opinion polls, however, imply a close national race. If the two parties tie in the national equivalent vote, say on 35-39 percent apiece, that will basically confirm the current state of the polls and that the two parties have roughly the same amount of support. Equally, if there is a one or two-point lead in either party’s favour, that will also confirm that the polls are broadly right. If, however, one party is ahead of the other by more than three-points, then that will suggest that that party should also be polling narrowly ahead. The Conservatives and Labour should both finish up on their 2014 shares of the vote, on account of the return to two-party politics that occurred in 2017. 


On election night, this national equivalent vote will be interesting to look at and will provide a good indicator of where things stand at a local level but, it is important not to read too much into the figures as a predictor for the next general election. At local elections, independents and smaller parties tend to perform better, whilst Labour and the Conservatives perform worse. The 2010 to 2015 parliament was marked by some very poor showings for the Liberal Democrats and some very strong showings for the United Kingdom Independence Party, but both parties outperformed their subsequent general election share of the vote at the local contests. In 2017, the Liberal Democrats scored an estimated 18 percent at the local elections but failed to secure even half of that just four weeks later. So, calls of a ‘Lib Dem resurgence’ must be treated with caution, unless the party suddenly starts polling at a higher level. 


Similarly, the Labour Party has tended to do slightly better at local elections than general and the Conservatives slightly worse. When the Labour Party has been polling badly, however, that situation is not a defined rule. Labour finished well below its 2010 share of the vote at all of the local elections from 2005 onwards and finished with a projected 28 percent in May 2017 before going on to poll 40 percent of the vote four weeks later at the general election. In essence, the national equivalent vote will be very interesting to look at and will give us a very broad idea of how the parties are doing nationally and whether the current period of tied opinion polls is correct. They will not, however, give much indication of how the next general election will turn out and although it will be a fun exercise, making seat projections from the national equivalent vote will be foolish. That said, warning bells should start to sound for Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party if they fail to finish ahead of the Conservatives or only manage a slim lead.


Note: Rallings & Thrasher NEV figures used.

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