It is easy to see the big picture painted by this year’s local elections. The Conservatives did very badly. Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens and independents all did well and made significant gains both in terms of Council control and councillors.
Against a background of strikes, the cost-of-living crisis, and deteriorating public services, and thirteen years of Tory rule capped by the turmoil of three Prime Ministers in the past twelve months, few will be surprised that the Labour Party seems most likely to form the next government.
What though of Sir Keir Starmer’s boast as results came in on Friday morning that Labour is “on course for a Labour majority government at the next election”?
This was the biggest test of political opinion Great Britain will see this side of the next general election, expected next year but due by January 2025 at the very latest. Seven voters out of ten in England had the chance to cast a vote, although only about three out of ten bothered, with new voter ID requirements not helping turnout.
Starmer made his prediction in Kent as he celebrated Labour’s overnight capture of Medway from the Tories. The party never managed that in the Blair years while gains made in the equivalent council elections in 1995 turned out to be the curtain raiser of Tony Blair’s first General Election landslide two years later.
But 2023 is not 1995. The political battleground has shifted. In the heady atmosphere of victory this weekend, no Labour supporter should underestimate how very difficult it is going to be for their party to pull off overall victory next year. Labour needs a swing of unprecedented size from its dire vote share under Jeremy Corbyn. Swing is calculated by adding the changes in vote share for Labour and Conservatives, whether up or down, and dividing this figure by 2.
In 2019 Labour won 42.7% of the vote and the Conservatives 32.9%. First past the post gave Labour 202 MPs and the Conservatives 365 MPs. Labour needs a swing from the Conservatives of 12 points just to give it the minimum overall majority of 2, with 326 MPs (a gain of 124 seats on 2019). In the past century Labour has enjoyed swings of almost the same size as before, but the number of seats gained has been greater, built on a higher base. Tony Blair’s swing of 10.2 is the record breaker so far, smaller than Sir Keir needs, but it gave New Labour 146 extra MPs and a crushing overall majority of 179.
Smaller Labour/Conservative swings from 2019 would yield less spectacular if significant results. At 3.2 points the Tories would lose their overall majority but still be the largest party. At 7 Labour become the largest party, but until they reach 12, they would have to govern either in a coalition, or with “confidence and supply” acquiescence of smaller parties.
These transformational statistics explain why there is so much attention paid to the “if this had been a general election” NEV – the national equivalent vote a.k.a. PNS, Projected National Share– painstakingly calculated in the aftermath by the competing professorial teams of Michael Thrasher and Colin Rallings, and John Curtice and Stephen Fisher, from votes cast, with low turnouts, in only some parts of England.
There is usually a little difference between the two sets of figures when they are finalized. Already it looks as if the equivalent vote share for the Conservatives is 28%-30%, Labour 36%-38%, Liberal Democrats 18%-20% and others 16%-19%. In the last set of these, best case for Conservatives would give a Con to Lab swing of 8, worst case of 10. Neither would give Sir Keir a majority at the General Election.
The last time these council seats were fought in 2019 vote shares were Conservative 31%, Labour 31%, LibDem 17%, Others/Independent 17%, UKIP 4%. That too was a bad night for the Tories. They lost 1335 seats, speeding Theresa May out of the door of Number Ten. Clearly Labour, LibDems and others have done better still this year.
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The Tories are already pointing out that Boris Johnson racked up his “stonking” general election victory just eight months later, helped by the returning UKIP and independent votes. Those Brexit votes are now priced into the Conservatives. The party is now down irrespective of how areas voted in the Referendum. Unsurprisingly the drop is bigger in those places more Remain-inclined, where the Liberal Democrat is up significantly alongside Labour. This calls into question the post-vote contention of Tory spokespeople that the “Blue Wall” will be scared back to them by the prospect of a Labour government.
Conservative strategists also hope that their opponents will be drawn into endless voter-alienating speculation about coalitions, in spite of their post Clegg-Cameron insistence that a) formal alliances are off the agenda and b) none of them would prop up a minority Tory government.
A Tory scare campaign depicting Starmer in the breast pocket of the SNP leader Hamza Yousaf hardly seems credible. Instead Labour is hoping that twenty plus seats taken from the Nationalists will take it over the top to a majority.
The uncomfortable truth for Sir Keir Starmer is that Labour needs the Liberal Democrats to do well to pull down the Conservatives. That doesn’t help Labour to a majority. There will be some squeeze on “the others” and independents’ vote share at the general election. The LibDems and Greens are likely to hold more of their ground gained.
It may be a two horse race to become Prime Minister, but the next election will be a multi-party affair. Labour took councils from the Tories in places it needs to, such as Medway, Swindon, East Staffordshire, and things moved in their direction less decisively in Blackpool, Hartlepool, Lincoln, Tamworth and Plymouth. Meanwhile the Liberal Democrats celebrated scalps in Stratford upon Avon, Windsor and Maidenhead, and Dacorum (which currently hosts two Tory MPs in Hemel Hempstead and SW Herts). Unseating Theresa May in Berkshire looks like a tall order for the LibDems. But speaking from her own experience in St Albans, deputy leader Daisy Cooper points out that her party has a record of climbing higher over time once it gets a foothold.
The good news for Rishi Sunak is that there will not be an immediate attempt to oust him as leader after a thumping of this size, as some on the right were planning last year. The bad news is that he has not yet “steadied” the party enough either electorally or with his own activists. A vociferous minority of Tory nationalists still hanker after “Bringing back Boris” in spite of the latest Seldon chronicle putting on the record how unfit he was to be Prime Minister. It still looks as if only he can refresh parts of the decaying “Red Wall”. Responding to bruising results in Kent and in the Midlands where feelings against immigrants run strongly, the Prime Minister is likely to redouble his “stop the boats rhetoric”, alienating other potential Tory voters in the process.
As the Tories digest losses across the map, Sunak does seem to be the magic charm for a recovery in fortunes strong enough to restore them to winning ways.
Starmer is stuck where he was before the local elections. He still needs votes from Remainers and Leavers, university towns and cities and post-industrial heartlands. Placate one constituency and he alienates another. Labour is not yet on track for the outright victory he predicted this weekend.
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