More guff is usually said in the wake of local election results than any other type of political event in the United Kingdom. Partially because they are complex and you can generally swing them in all sorts of different ways. This is happening today, despite the results being unusually clear.
Let’s start with the Tories. As of the time of writing, with 156 of 259 councils having declared results, the Conservative party has lost a net total of 705 seats and 15 councils. That’s pretty ugly going. However, these results do not come as any sort of shock – everyone knew going in the Tories were going to lose a lot of seats. Partly because of Brexit, partly because they’ve been in government for nine years, partly because of May. It’s bad, but not terminal for the Tories – yet, at least.
For Labour, however, the results are apocalyptically horrendous. You can see it in the way the party’s spokespeople have struggled today – the results are way below what they had considered a possible worst case scenario. At the time of writing they have lost a net 94 seats, on course for around 150 losses across the country, perhaps more. For the official opposition to be losing seats at a local election, particularly a set that sees the Tories not only in turmoil but losing seats like crazy themselves, this is really, really, really bad. Particularly as these are the sorts of areas you’d need to see some level of Labour surge if they were on course to win the next general election.
UKIP are toast. They’ve lost 71 seats and will lose more. In an election where many voters wanted an alternative that was clearly pro-Brexit, a lot of people spoiled their ballots instead. Says it all about UKIP in 2019, really.
Now to the winners of the day. The Lib Dems are on course to have their first big night in a very long time. They are net plus 430 seats at the moment, plus 8 councils (they only had four before yesterday in the areas in question). They look set for 500+, maybe even 600+ if it is good going from here. Whatever you want to say about these elections, that the turnout was low, this is a protest vote against the two big parties, it doesn’t matter – people have voted for the Lib Dem en masse in a set of elections for the first time in almost a decade. That is a really big deal.
Does it mean the Lib Dems are back? I would urge a lot of caution, which given the way the Lib Dems have acted since 2015, I worry won’t happen. This is a party that has a tendency to use evidence of a by election win in which all of the other parties dropped out of the race other than Monster Raving Loony, so that the Lib Dems won on an 84% swing, as proof that the next general election will produce a Liberal Democrat majority. How will they respond to actual, real success? I still think they need to come to terms with Change UK, and I hope this success will make that easier as opposed to more difficult. Either way, a very good night for the Lib Dems – it’s been a mini-generation since I could say that.
The Greens also deserve a huge round of applause. They’ve gained 96 seats so far and look set to more than double their number of seats. That this many people could turn out and vote Green should really worry the Labour Party, who threw everything at trying to stop this from happening and failed. It would only take a mini-Green surge on its own to really hurt Labour’s chances in a general election.
Finally, what does this mean for Brexit? I might anger Remainers by saying that while it is anecdotally positive, there are other factors to consider. One, the only really Brexity party running was UKIP, who are clearly considered past the pale, even amongst hardcore Leavers. If the Brexit Party had been running across the country, that would have given us a much better idea of what this all meant for Brexit.
How will [the Lib Dems] respond to actual, real success?
‘Thank God — we lived through it — the Great War, 1914 to 1917…’
Paul W says
We need to remember that these seats were, in the main, last fought on the same day as the Conservative general election win of May 2015. The estimated local election party vote shares then were Con 35, Lab 29, LibDem 11 and Others 25. The LibDem vote of 11% was the lowest since the figures were first calculated on a regular basis in 1982. In 2018 the figures were: Con 35, Lab 35, LibDem 16 and Others 14.
The equivalent figures for 2019 (so far) are: Cons 28, Lab 28, LibDem 19 and Others 25. That’s the best LibDem local election score since 2010, but still not back over 20% – as it was for most of the period from 1982. The main areas of LibDem gains are the South West, South East and Eastern regions – matching the main regions of Conservative losses. The LibDems are recovering old areas of strength lost under Nick Clegg’s leadership of the party.
The interesting thing about these numbers is that the Conservative and Labour parties are still level pegging in support nationally as they were last year. But the Conservative gains have been made, by and large, in traditional areas of Labour support – the old coalfields and industrial areas of the Midlands and the North. That should worry the Labour party a lot. And the rise in the Others vote to 25% (as it was in 2015) also hints at renewed voter discontent about something or other. I wonder what?