The Local Elections Briefing: The Expectations Game

May 1, 2018

 On Friday morning, analysts, pundits and the political parties will be dissecting the results of Thursday’s local elections. The media for much of Friday will be driven by the results and what they mean for the electoral fortunes of Britain’s ‘big two’ political parties and to a lesser extent, the Liberal Democrats and UKIP. Senior members in the Conservative and Labour parties have both been trying to carefully manage expectations to spin themselves as victors when the results are known. For the Conservatives, they want the floor to be as low as possible with big Labour gains expected and for Labour, they have been reminding voters that they did very well when these seats were last fought in 2014, so it will be difficult to make further big inroads. 

But, despite their best efforts to keep expectations low, these elections are firmly Labour’s to lose. All eyes will almost certainly be on London and regardless how well the parties perform elsewhere, London’s 32 borough councils will lead the headlines. The latest London wide poll taken by YouGov and Queen Mary’s University put the Labour Party 22-points ahead of the Conservatives, on 51 percent to the Conservatives 29. In terms of vote share, this would be the best result for Labour in London since Harold Wilson reversed the Conservative landslide of 1968 in 1971. Immediately before the poll came out, Owen Jones warned of an imminently bad poll for Labour in London. But with its lead still up on 2014, although slightly down from the eyewatering 26-points in February, the poll was certainly not bad news for Labour. On the figures, the party should at least stretch to taking control of Barnet and Tower Hamlets, with Hillingdon also being in play. Without taking any of the ‘Tory flagships’, this would still be an outstanding result for Labour in London. 

Jones’ tweet was almost certainly an attempt to prevent Labour voters and activists from getting complacent about the elections and an attempt to lower expectations. At the end of February, many Tories were talking up the prospects of Labour taking the party’s two flagship boroughs of Westminster and Wandsworth. In Wandsworth, Labour currently hold 19 seats and the party hasn’t won an overall majority since 1974. In Westminster, the Conservatives have held control of the council since its creation in 1964. So, whilst the two councils may well be added to the Labour column on Thursday, it is certainly not something that is a certainty and despite the good polls for Labour in London, it probably never has been. Labour has, however, been aggressively targeting these two boroughs so their targeting operation may well produce a swing away from the Conservatives that is higher than elsewhere in London. Nonetheless, the Conservatives have certainly sought to play up Labour’s chances and play down their own. If they come out of Thursday with 100 or less seats lost in London, they will be able to claim a lacklustre Labour performance. Any losses for the Conservatives will be bad news as 2014 wasn’t a particularly good year for London conservatism and even if Labour win just one more borough than in 2014, it will be their best result since 1971. 

Elsewhere, things may not be so good for Labour and may give the Conservatives some hope. Only yesterday, Professor John Curtice pointed out that although the remain-heavy London is fertile ground for the Labour party, the average remain vote in many of the other councils being fought is 45 percent. Couple this with a strong performance under Ed Miliband in 2014 and it becomes clear that Jeremy Corbyn could come away surprisingly empty handed when all the votes have been counted. The big unknown is still what happens with UKIP’s 2014 vote and where it ends up. In some places, particularly around the Thames estuary and in the midlands, it is more likely to tip the balance in favour of the Conservatives compared to places such as Plymouth where Labour will benefit. This could allow both Labour and the Conservatives to gain council majorities from no overall control but on the whole, there are likely to be very few Conservative to Labour switches or vice versa outside of the capital. This certainly gives rise to the possibility that both main parties will be in positive figures in terms of council control, although Labour’s performance in London should see it make what will appear on paper as an impressive gain in councillors. 

Although Labour is significantly up on its 2014 position in the opinion polls at the moment, so are the Conservatives by virtue of the collapsed UKIP vote and a return to the domination of Britain’s historic two-party system. The net result of this is that compared to 2014, there is a very slight swing from Labour to Conservatives and consequently, it may be difficult for Labour to make the impressive gains nationally that it requires to make to meet the wild expectations that many both inside and outside of the Labour Party hold. For the Conservatives, their London losses may be offset by a better performance elsewhere and unless the party goes into the meltdown that is predicted in London elsewhere, then Mrs May could well come away with her wobbly leadership slightly strengthened. 

On the whole, the expectations for Labour are big and for the Conservatives, they are through the floor. This situation is the complete mirror image of the 2016 and 2017 local elections, where it looked like Labour were heading for a bad result and the Conservatives a good one. In 2016, Labour did slightly better than the predictions and the Conservatives slightly worse. As a result, Labour and Jeremy Corbyn were able to claim a sort of victory. In 2017, the results went much as expected, but media coverage focused on projections of what the results meant for the impeding general election. This year, the Conservatives have successfully managed to play their own position down and for Jeremy Corbyn and his team, anything less than a strong performance nationally will be bad news.


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