May Elections Ready Reckoner

Luke Akehurst

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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