Just to get started here, I am not going to predict the outcome in full. That would be a fool’s errand. There are way too many variables to even begin to pull together something that anyone in their right mind could psephologically feel confident about. However, I think there are three broad ways it could go on Thursday and what I do feel more confident predicting is what happens in each scenario in terms of their effect on British politics.
The first one goes like this: Labour does solidly but nothing mind-blowing – a gain of somewhere around 100 seats net, maybe slightly less. The Tories remain about level, and perhaps even gain a few. The Lib Dems underperform compared to expectations. The Greens gain a handful of councillors and announce that this represents a new dawn in Green politics for Britain.
What will happen if this plays out: the right-wing media will rejoice, saying that the country has clearly forgiven Boris Johnson for Partygate and now we can finally “move on”. Johnson will almost definitely lead the Tories into the next general election, whatever goes down next. Meanwhile, the left will go into full blow Keith mode, saying the local election results clearly demonstrate that Starmer can’t win a general election.
What this result will actually mean: not a lot, really. This is a very predictable outcome in many ways. The places where the locals are being held this year are where Labour already have a lot of seats and so gaining loads and loads will be tricky. If Labour makes modest gains, if anything it probably shows they really are on track to be the largest party at the next election unless the Tories make some sort of miraculous recovery along the way. In other words, ignore the hype.
The second way it could go on Thursday is what I call the “Lib Dem dream” – this is where Labour roughly stand still, the Greens do okay and then declare a new dawn for Green politics in Britain, but crucially where we get the Tories losing loads of seats to the Lib Dems.
What will happen if this plays out: there will be a panic amongst the right-wing press about what might happen at the next general election. They will suddenly become interested in the Lib Dems again, having to dust off their rolodex of outdated Lib Dem contacts to get in touch with. For whatever reason, losing seats to the Lib Dems scares Tories more than losing them to Labour. I think this is because the latter just indicates a roughly predictable ebb and flow within the two party system, whereas a Lib Dem breakthrough threatens the two party system itself. Starmer, incidentally, will be pilloried if this happens, with the left doing the same thing as in scenario one, going on and on about how many seats Corbyn would have got when in fact he was notably crap at winning local seats.
What this result will actually mean: this one would be more interesting than scenario one in that it might suggest that the Tories really do have a “blue wall” problem with the Lib Dems they need to think about. But it would inevitably be massively overhyped by all sides – it’s one thing to take local seats and win by-elections in these Tory friendly waters, another entirely to take Conservative seats at a general election, as the Lib Dems inevitably find out at every general election. The polls will still be in Labour’s favour and they will still be roughly on track to be the biggest party after the next GE, although strangely, almost no one in Westminster will be telling you that.
The third and final scenario is the one feared most by the Tory bubble: the Conservatives get slaughtered, losing hundreds of councillors across the land, several key councils, mostly at the hands of Labour but the Lib Dems and Green get a few themselves. The Greens announce a new dawn for Green politics in Britain.
What will happen if this plays out: the Conservative party and their attending media will have a nervous breakdown. Some will try and play the “under these circumstances, Labour should have done a lot better’ card, but it won’t wash. It will be clear to even some mega-fans that Boris Johnson has become an electoral liability. Whether they get rid of him or not is another story, and I don’t have enough insight into the collective, current neuroses of the Conservative party to tell you one way or another. Starmer will bask in the glory while the left manages to construct a narrative around why gaining loads of seats at the local elections is somehow actually bad for Labour.
What this result will actually mean: this would be the most significant result as it really would give us some indication that things are going horribly wrong in Tory-land. Although I would warn about overhyping even this result. One only has to look at the local elections in 2017 for a lesson on how not to project these sorts of results onto what will happen in a general election. The 2017 locals happened only five weeks before the snap general election called by Theresa May to increase her majority. The Tories gained 563 seats and Labour lost 382. The Lib Dems lost 42. Everyone in Westminster – myself included – felt certain this was an indication that the Tories were on course for a crushing victory in the general election that was mere days away. Instead, we all know what happened, with Labour gaining 30 seats and the Tories losing their majority.
In other words, whatever happens on Thursday, the best thing to be said about it is don’t take it to mean more than it really does. If the Tories can win over 500 seats in a local election five weeks before losing 17 MPs in a general election, it really does show you that locals and general elections are very separate beasts. It’s much better to pay attention to the national polls which almost everyone in Westminster is strangely telling you to ignore at the moment.