May Elections Ready Reckoner

4th April, 2012 9:30 am

As the expectations management game has already started, and as a volunteer borough organiser I am going to be rather busy nearer polling day, I thought I’d give my guide to what constitutes success for Labour on 3rd May earlier than last year.

The Tory spin-doctors are already predicting 900 or 1000 extra Labour councillors getting elected. As per last year expect the same people to appear on Friday 4th May saying that any fewer Labour gains than they themselves predicted is far fewer than predicted and indicates a crisis for Labour.

To try to see through the spin it’s important to look at the previous results for these sets of elections and compare with them.

I would repeat my usual plea: ignore the change in the other parties’ standing as they may not all have direct implications for Labour: for instance if the Tories make a small net gain in councillors because their gains from the Lib Dems in southern councils where it’s a straight LD vs. Tory fight exceed their losses to us in parts of the country where the general election is determined, it won’t tell us much.

What we should really be interested in is the direction of travel for Labour.

The biggie is obviously the London Mayor election. Winning it is obviously both an immense boost to momentum for the General Election, and puts your party’s hands on some real levers of power, though in a limited range of policy areas. Given the extent to which it’s a personality battle between Ken and Boris, with the other parties squeezed out, it’s of limited value as a proxy for how the parties might perform in a General Election. In the past Ken out-performed the national Labour brand, now the polls suggest he underperforms it by varying degrees (about 20% for most of 2011, less than that when the polls tightened in January after the mayoral campaign was refocused onto the pledge to cut fares). Much will depend on whether Labour’s national lead stays large enough for its coattails effect to outweigh any net anti-Ken effect (I stress net as there are still voters who back Ken not Labour, just fewer at the time of writing than back Labour nationally but not Ken). Trying to overcome a double incumbency effect (Ken losing any benefit of incumbency he had in 2008 and Boris gaining a first-term incumbency boost) with the rejected candidate from last time was always going to be tricky. On the plus side my experience this time as a borough organiser is that the Labour campaign is several hundred percent more effective than in 2008 – both in terms of clarity of message, Ken being seen in every borough rather than just Zone One, and the extent to which ordinary members are being mobilised. Canvassing sessions which had me and two volunteers turning up in 2008 now have twenty participants.

A more accurate indicator of Labour’s support in London will be the London Assembly poll. There are three constituency assembly seats that might change hands from Conservative to Labour: Camden & Barnet (majority 10.4% with a strong Labour candidate former local MP Andrew Dismore), Merton & Wandsworth (majority 15.8%) and Ealing & Hillingdon
(majority 16.5%). There are tricky defensive Labour marginals in Brent & Harrow, a surprise gain last time, and Enfield & Haringey. Failure to take any of these seats may be compensated for by gains on the proportional top-up list seats. The basic winning line is whether Labour gets more seats in total than the Tories on the 25 seat Assembly – turning a current 11 Con, 8 Lab situation into at least a 10-9 Labour lead by gaining two seats from them.

The Welsh local elections should be good for Labour as last time, in 2008, was a wipeout. Success would be reversing the 124 seat losses from 2008 and the six council control losses.

Scotland is a different matter. The SNP are riding high, but the Single Transferable Vote electoral system means most councils are perpetually hung. Only Glasgow is in play. Labour holding control there would be a very abrupt end to the SNP bandwagon. The context of last year’s Scottish Parliament elections suggests this is highly unlikely.

For the English council elections Birmingham is the main iconic target for a Labour gain. Gaining at least a couple of the half dozen winnable major southern towns would also be of great symbolism. I won’t name them as I don’t want to tempt fate!

There are at least four ways of measuring Labour’s national performance: national vote share, raw number of councillors, number of councillors gained and number of councils controlled.

Looking first at national vote share, the estimated figures the BBC uses are as follows for previous years in this cycle:

1996 43% Labour share of the vote
2000 30%
2004 26%
2008 24%

Last year’s local election national vote share estimate for Labour was 37%. If we exceed that we almost certainly beat the Tories on vote share too.

Raw number of councillors is the national (GB) total figure including all the thousands of councillors not up for election.

1996:10,929 Labour Councillors (the highest number ever)
2000: 8,529
2004: 6,669
2008: 5,122

Last year saw us reach a total of 5,691 councillors.

The 310 gains in England to take us to 6,000 Labour councilors (without the additional gains we might make in Wales) is a realistic target given how few seats are up for election compared to last year and would take us back to near our 2006 total, reversing all the heavy losses in the 2007-2010 period.

Number of gains. For comparison here are the years since Thatcher came to power when Labour has made net gains (in the other 17 years not listed, we lost seats):

1980 +601 Labour councilors
1981 +988
1983 +8
1984 +88
1986 +13
1988 +76
1989 +35
1990 +284
1991 +584
1993 +111
1994 +44
1995 +1,204
1996 +468
2010 +372
2011 +860

The 1995 result as it was a kind of perfect storm where Labour took bucket loads of seats in very safe Tory areas. Including that result there have been just four occasions in 30 years when Labour made over 600 gains, and another three when 300-600 seats were gained. The lower end of this range is more likely this May because, as explained above,
there aren’t many seats being contested this time.

Control of councils is a lagging indicator because the practice of many councils electing only a third of their members each year, including all the Metropolitan Boroughs where Labour is strongest, delays and softens political trends. Some councils where it wasn’t physically possible for Labour to win back control in 2011 may tumble in 2012.

The number of councils Labour has controlled has been as follows:

2002 – 136 (this was the last year in which we controlled more than the Tories)
2003 – 103
2004 – 94
2005 – 92
2006 – 75
2007 – 58
2008 – 46
2009 – 37
2010 – 54
2011 – 81

Thus anything more than 13 gains of control takes us back to a 2004 or earlier position, 22 or more gain to a 2003 position. We won the 2005 General Election after these kinds of results.

The location of councils and seats gained is important too: look out for gains in councils covering areas similar to seats we lost in the general election.

As last year, one final indicator won’t appear in the media headlines but is worth looking through the detailed results for: the Labour seat gains in councils where we have been reduced to a handful of councillors or none at all. These will be a good indication of whether Labour is truly back on the map as a party with nationwide appeal.

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  • Simon Trent

    Blatant expectations management. Local elections experts Thrasher and Rawlings say that Labour should gain around 717 councillors. Yet you parrot the Tom Watson line that Labour can only expect 300-350 gains. Clearly trying to downplay in case the result is poor or present an unimpressive result as beyond Labour’s wildest dreams. 

    • treborc

       Of course we expect labour to win  high numbers, then if they do labour can say look larger then we thought, if they do poorly they can say look we said, political spin doctoring at it’s worse.

      New Labours  dead, problem is nobody buried it.

    • Amber Star

      I think that Labour will be incredibly pleased to get 700 additional councillors. Labour’s caution is because local elections often have poor turnout. 2011 elections were on the same day as the AV referendum. 2012 will be a much ‘quieter’ election & coverage in the national media will be low key.

      • Dartford_Red


        Labour’s caution is because local elections often have poor turnout”

        True, but wouldn’t it be also a fair point that, if Labour are not able to mobilise support enough to increase turnout then that is also something of a concern? 

    • Luke Akehurst

      I’m “parrroting” what Tom has briefed to the NEC. 300 is the target. If we do better than that it’s a bonus.

  • Labour should top 400 gains in England unless they will perform worse than 2011 (there’re at least 445 wards won by Con/LD/Others in 2008 but won by Labour in 2011)

    In Scotland, other than Glasgow, there’s also North Lanarkshire where Labour is fighting to hold an overall majority. STV will possibly help ScotLab overall this year: they won’t lose many seats even if there’re swings to SNP. They are most vulnerable in 3 members wards currently split 2 Lab 1 SNP.

    • John Ruddy

      I think that losses Labour may make in Glasgow will be made up for by gains elsewhere. The SNP in Glasgow will mainly take seats from other parties, but I expect Labour will still be the largest party – although I wouldnt put it past the SNP to cobble together an administration.

      I expect Labour to become the largest party also in Fife, Dundee and Aberdeen, but again not necessarily to take control.

  • Hugh

    “The Tory spin-doctors are already predicting 900 or 1000 extra Labour
    councillors getting elected. As per last year expect the same people to
    appear on Friday 4th May saying that any fewer Labour gains than they
    themselves predicted is far fewer than predicted and indicates a crisis
    for Labour”

    And what you’re doing is different, how?

    • treborc

      Spin spinning, somebody on another comment said Labour does not do spin any more, well here is a bit.

    • Brumanuensis

      All Luke is doing is pointing out hyperbole. If you want to see his past predictions, I direct you to this post: http://labourlist.org/2011/05/election-night-ready-reckoner/

      Do you believe that we’ll gain 900-1000 councillors, Hugh?

      • Hugh

         I’ve no idea, but there seems to be something a bit fishy about predicting 300 seats when independent experts are predicting 700, don’t you think? There’s certainly something fishy about dismissing those overstating the expected gains by 300 when you’re understating them by 400.

        Does Tom Watson really believe Labour will only win 300?

        • John Ruddy

          I think its a fair estimation. After all, its pretty rare for Labour to win more than 300 seats (net) at a local election, and the tories are doing much better than many would expect at this point in the electoral cycle.

          • Hugh

            “the tories are doing much better than many would expect at this point in the electoral cycle”

            In 2008, when most of the seats were last contested, the Conservatives a ten point lead over Labour; now they are 10 points behind.

            Strange, too, isn’t it that Tom Watson who, dare I suggest it, could be suspected of having an agenda, is so far wide of Profs Rallings and Thrasher, who are experts at this and whose agenda is to not look incompetent. They’re predicting 717 seats. Given that even Luke Akehurst is describing it as a “narrative”, can we not just admit it’s spin?

          • John Ruddy

            Rallings and Thrasher, despite being “experts” frequently get this wrong.

        • Brumanuensis

          It’s rather hard know what to expect in council elections. I remember when I was in York last year, we failed to gain some seats we’d been banking on, but ended up winning seats we’d considered no-hopers. I’m sure Tom Watson is managing expectations somewhat, but I don’t think he’s doing so purely on the grounds of spin. He probably anticipates that a national poll lead may not – indeed almost certainly won’t – lead to the sort of uniform gains you might expect. Probably 300 is about the number he feels completely confident in predicting and the anything above that is on a diminishing scale of expectations.

    • Luke Akehurst

      Everything I’ve said is backed up by evidence from previous elections. They’ve just plucked numbers out of the air.

      Labour people need a narrative and facts they can refer to.

  • AlanGiles

    In the current climate I think it is a brave – or very foolhardy man – who would make any predictions at all. Wait and see, or watch and pray as Father Blair might say.

    The most interesting thing will be to see how the LibDem vote divides up between the two main parties, because they are plainly not going to do very well – even Brian Paddick’s approval ratings in London are down this time.

  • Johndclare

    Thanks.  This is very helpful and informative. What you have done is to give us a set of performance indicators which will allow us disapssionately to measure Labour’s performance in May … and then reset our strategies accordingly.

    Personally, I suspect that Labour would be wrong to go into the elections expecting a walkover based on the current 10% lead in the opinion polls – it is a very different thing giving your opinion in an opinion poll to actually going out and voting in an election.  Moreover, the current opinion poll figures are currently based mainly on people’s perceptions based on media coverage of the Tory cuts – give it a couple of years and they will (in a pre-1995 way) be being based on people’s real suffering as the cuts hit home, and the anger will be much more sustainable into the ballot box.

    Speaking cynically, since the government is passing on making the actual cuts to the local authorities, it might be in Labour’s favour NOT to win too many councils this time, for all it will mean is that there will be a danger that people blame the local Labour Party councillors for implementing the cuts, rather than the Tories for imposing them.

    • Luke Akehurst

      That never really happens – voters are quite good at understanding where the funding cuts stem from. We need to control councils as even in a time of cuts if we are in control we can decide what gets cut and try to protect the most vulnerable in society.

  • Amber Star

    Tories were saying 700 seats until Rawlings ‘predicted’ that number. Now the Tory spinners have upped it to +900 Labour councillors. If we win 1000, we’ll still be ‘treated’ to Baroness Warsi saying it’s a terrible result for Labour & we should’ve done much better which only goes to show Ed Miliband can’t cut it, Labour poll lead is soft, blah, blah, blah.

    And most people, even Labour ‘cheerleaders’ are expecting Boris to win London. If Ken manages to pinch it from him, it will be an astonishing victory for Labour. It’s a victory that I am fervently hoping for. Ken’s team have run a fantastic campaign; even those who are not Ken fans must admit, his team deserve to win.

  • Redshift

    I find the whole idea of trying to predict a number of council gains nationally a bizarre exercise. Luke has made a fair stab at it, but let’s face it – unless you are intimately aware of the political situation for the party in a particular area (e.g. you have been involved in the campaigning there recently) then all you are doing is looking at raw national swing and extrapolating that onto very small electorates that have a great potential for divergence from the trend. That kind of method has all kind of qualifications when applied to general elections and constituencies – nevermind ward-level in a local election.

    Clearly, we will be expecting to make hundreds of gains over the whole country but I would be very cautious about putting any figure on it unless I had the time to talk to activists on the ground in every local authority.

    My only criticism of Luke’s article is – what happened to the north?! I know it is easy to think north = red but we will be making gains up here too and we will need to in the general election as well. 

  • Dartford_Red


    one final indicator won’t appear in the media headlines but is worth looking through the detailed results for: the Labour seat gains in councils where we have been reduced to a handful of councillors or none at all. These will be a good indication of whether Labour is truly back on the map as a party with nationwide appeal.”

    I most certainly agree with this. Labour could completely wipe the Tories out in traditionally Labour areas and inner cities but it won’t mean very much unless there are signs that people are ready to vote Labour again in more Tory areas, such as the South. 

  • Any ideas on how many seats you will take from the libdems ?

  • Andy Mac

    If the Tories are saying we should pick up 1000 seats, we should only be too happy to oblige!

    Let it be a lesson to Tories like Baroness Warsi who mouth off about elections despite never having any experience of elected office. The more they talk up our chances, the more seats we’ll take off them.

    And for a spot on councils look at the following in the South East: Reading (22/46)  – should take majority controlSouthampton (15/42)  – might take majority controlBasingstoke (10/60)  – should pick up seatsRushmoor (Aldershot) (6/42)  – might pick up seats

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