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10 takeaways from local election results (so far)

A pretty terrible set of election results for the Conservatives so far, with a major loss at the Blackpool South by-election and losing councillors at a historic rate, compounded in many places by Reform UK. For Labour, by Friday morning they've taken control of three symbolic councils in Hartlepool, Thurrock and Rushmoor - but there is some evidence for the 'left vote' splitting.

Chris Hopkins Political Research Director 03/05/2024

10 takeaways from local election results so far: not all splits are created equally

  1. There’s no getting away from it so far; this is a pretty terrible set of local election results for the Conservatives. The story of the early hours of Friday was that the rate at which the Conservatives were losing councillors was astonishing and historic – around 64% – but towards the end of the night, it had stemmed to around half of defences being lost. Ultimately, that is the difference between a disastrous night and merely a bad one for Rishi Sunak, and with many wards still to declare over Friday daytime and Saturday, that picture could change significantly.
  2. The vote share for the Conservatives isn’t all that bad relatively, given their national opinion polling position, but it has translated into above-average seat losses. Partly this is down to Reform UK, in the wards they’ve contested. We’ve seen Reform UK achieving vote shares that, if transferred to the Conservatives, would have resulted in far fewer losses. But that isn’t the entire story, with Conservative seat losses being above what could be expected given their average vote share – even in areas Reform UK aren’t contesting.
  3. Of course, Conservative spinners will be – and have already started – pointing to potential holds in the mayoralties of Tees Valley and the West Midlands as evidence of the Conservative malaise being overstated. The major issue with that is if these popular incumbents do hold on, they’re probably going to do so with large swings away from their party and on heavily reduced majorities. It’s likely to be their local popularity and incumbency factor shielding them from the losses, winning not because of Rishi Sunak, but in spite of him.
  4. That also has an impact at a general election. If you are a Conservative MP defending your seat, you may take a crumb of comfort if Andy Street and Ben Houchen hold on, believing that your own personal incumbency may be enough to save you. This is probably misguided, as the voting drivers differ hugely from a metro mayor election to a general election, where the government could change. It also will not help those Conservative candidates standing in a record number of seats where the incumbent is standing down. Incumbency might not even mitigate Conservative losses at the general election, let alone save them.
  5. For Labour, it’s been a strong set of local elections so far, with the headlines being the party taking control of three very symbolic councils, Hartlepool, Thurrock and Rushmoor. Hartlepool’s council and by-election results back in 2021 was famously the nadir of Keir Starmer’s leadership at the time. Tonight, they went in defending one seat, and came away with nine, marking a better result here than even last year. Thurrock council’s financial issues may have helped Labour take control in an authority they haven’t controlled since 2014, but it’s still significant given the huge movement away from Labour throughout the 2010s, and the fact that UKIP nearly won the parliamentary constituency in 2015. Rushmoor, a heavily military local authority in Hampshire, has never been controlled by Labour until tonight. They’re hugely positive results that have offset some seat losses in areas like South Tyneside.
  6. Labour has experienced the splitting of the left vote in some areas, particularly in the North East and Oldham, losing seats to the Greens and Independents. These have sometimes been in wards with high-Muslim populations, and the idea that Labour is experiencing some localised difficulties relating to its stance on Gaza does seem to be playing out. With Burnley, Bradford and others still to declare on Friday, there’s the potential for this to get worse. However, the swing away from Labour in these areas doesn’t look large enough at this stage to affect them at a general election. All splits are not created equal, and the split on the right between the Conservatives and Reform will potentially have a far greater impact at a general election that any split Labour may face.
  7. The Greens had a decent evening and could be on course for their best ever local election result. Their gains have come from both the Conservatives and Labour, but ultimately their success will be judged on whether they take control of Bristol council, and we might not know that until Friday evening.
  8. The Liberal Democrats are having a middling night. Their success in Con-Lib areas is good, but they are struggling in Lab-Lib areas – perhaps to be expected. The councils that have declared so far have perhaps not favoured them, so they could certainly pick up tomorrow, but so far they may be disappointed with the lack of progress given the scale of the Conservative collapse.
  9. In among the local elections, we’ve also had the Blackpool South by-election, triggered by the resignation of Scott Benton. As expected, Labour gained the seat and did so comfortably, but Reform UK failed to pip the Conservatives into second place, taking just shy of 17% of the vote. This is below par given their national opinion polling performance, and while they have had some decent results in some of the council areas they’ve contested, I can’t help but continue to feel underwhelmed by their performance. They are an insurgent party, and they will have an impact at the general election, likely taking votes away from the Conservatives and maybe handing seats to Labour or the Liberal Democrats. But their performance in areas where the Leave vote and anti-Conservative sentiment is high just isn’t anywhere near what their opinion polling performance implies it should be.
  10. A final word on the police and crime commissioner elections. There’s an argument that the incumbents are so little-known compared to councillors or mayors, these albeit low-turnout races are the best judge of party brand we have in this set of locals. In the three declared at the time of writing, the swing away from the Conservatives has been pretty sizable, holding in Lincolnshire and losing in Cumbria and remarkably, Avon and Somerset. Implying – as the whole set of results so far do – the Conservative brand is a major barrier to any possible recovery before a general election.

 

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