Between now and Polling Day on Thursday there’s going to be a lot of expectation management about the results. Expect ashen-faced Tory spin-doctors to soberly predict 1000 or 1500 extra Labour councillors getting elected. Then expect the same people to appear on Friday saying that 400 or 600 Labour gains is far fewer than predicted and indicates a crisis for Labour.
To try to see through the spin on Friday it’s important to look at the previous results for these sets of elections and compare with them.
I would 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.
For the Welsh Assembly, the number of Labour seats (out of 60) has been as follows:
1999 – 28
2003 – 30
2007 – 26
Thus getting to 30 seats would be equal to our best ever result, which was in the middle of Labour’s period in government.
For the Scottish Parliament the number of Labour seats (out of 129) has been:
1999 – 56
2003 – 50
2007 – 46
For the council elections it gets a bit more complicated.
First, although everyone talks about 2007 as it was the last time these seats were contested, it is not 100% comparable. In 2007, every Scottish council had elections as well, but to avoid another clash with the Scottish Parliament elections, these have been delayed until 2012. Since 2007, there has been a move to unitary councils in Bedfordshire, Cheshire, Cornwall, Durham, Northumberland, Shropshire and Wiltshire. Therefore none of the district councils and councillors for these areas that formed part of the 2007 exist anymore.
Furthermore, there are at least four ways of measuring Labour’s 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:
1995 47% Labour share of the vote
So 30% takes us back to the levels we were getting before our last general election victory, 36% to the heyday of New Labour.
It’s also fair just to compare with the 29% achieved last year in the general election and see how much progress we have made.
Raw number of councillors is the national total figure including all the thousands of councillors not up for election. This is obviously affected slightly by the move to unitaries in some areas reducing the number of councillors:
1995 10,461 Labour Councillors
Thus 600 gains would be a big achievement as it would take us back to where we were four years ago (reversing the very heavy losses in 2008 and 2009), and anything more than starts to reverse pre-2007 losses.
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 councillors
Let’s discount 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 three occasions in 30 years when Labour made over 600 gains, and another two when 400-600 seats were gained. Thus anything above 400 gains is impressive by recent historical standards.
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. It won’t be physically possible for Labour to win back many of these councils this year, but a large number might tumble in 2012. The number of councils we could ever control has also shrunk because of the move to unitaries in some areas and the Scottish councils now electing by a different electoral system which makes it highly unlikely for one party to gain majority control.
The number of councils Labour has controlled has been as follows (showing all elections since 2003 but only the ones in this cycle before that):
1995 199 Labour controlled councils
Thus anything more than 20 gains of control takes us back to a 2006 or earlier position. The location of councils gained is important too: look out for gains in councils covering areas similar to seats we lost in the general election.
One final indicator won’t appear in the media headlines but is worth looking through the detailed results for: the Labour seat gains in the regions where we did worst in the general election (South East, South West and Eastern) in particular 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.