Corbyn’s Labour must gain more than 100 seats to pass local elections test



The May 2016 English local elections are a significant electoral test for all the political parties.

The contests across England may be more important both as a barometer of public opinion, and in their implications, than the contests in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London. Many factors are very much in the Labour party’s favour and the Opposition should do well in these elections: these are midterm elections after six years of an austerity Government now arguing in public over Europe and likely to lose seats to a Liberal Democrat revival while the world economy threatens a slowdown or worse.

The Opposition should gain at least an additional 100 seats while the Liberal Democrats’ local operation may see the Conservatives lose seats to their former coalition partners.

More important than raw numbers, however, is where seats are won or lost. Some previews have suggested that Labour may suffer net losses of up to 200 seats, while other analysis suggests Labour should win 300 additional seats. Whilst the national polls of vote share and leadership ratings show both Labour and leader Jeremy Corbyn trailing the Conservative government, many longer term, more structural factors, are far more favourable to the Opposition.

Additionally, as the opinion polls consistently over-stated Labour’s popularity in the run up to the 2015 General election, it is possible that the changes brought about to remedy this inaccuracy may have over-compensated and thus under-state Labour’s support. As such it is possible that the gloomy picture painted by current polling gives a distorted impression while, given Labour’s structural advantages, Labour should perform strongly in these local elections and, at the very least, achieve a higher national equivalent vote share than the Conservatives. For one, these are mid-term elections which are rarely positive for the Government.

The local elections in 2016 will be largely for the same seats as those elected in 2012, which were a high watermark for Ed Miliband’s Labour. However, whilst it was a relatively positive result for Labour, it must be stressed it was a good result for Labour under Miliband – a leader viewed unfavourably by the electorate. Given that many of the factors that were present in 2012 are still relevant, it provides a useful benchmark against which to compare the 2016 local elections.

The 823 net gains made by Labour in 2012 were seen by some analysts as about what should be expected given the prevailing conditions.

Therefore recent newspaper stories suggesting that Labour should be prepared to lose up to 200 seats in May can perhaps be treated as part of expectation management as a net loss of 200 seats should be viewed as bad but not quite disastrous for Labour – it would be a swing from Labour to Conservative of around 3.5 per cent since the general election. Labour losses would, however, be unusual as governments tend to perform badly in mid-term local elections and oppositions tend to do well.

The Conservatives have now been in office for six years, including the coalition, which should boost the Opposition – much as Labour benefited from the 2012 local elections taking place in mid- term but more so.

After the Local elections of 2003, when Tony Blair had been in office for six years, Labour held 33 per cent of all council seats while the Conservative Party which went on to replace its leader and comfortably lose the 2005 election won 35 per cent of the national equivalent vote share and held 35 per cent of all council seats. Oppositions tend to outperform governments at this stage of the electoral cycle.

More recent events may have the effect of undermining the fundamentals which won the Conservatives the May 2015 General Election, primarily their economic record. Growth forecasts in the UK and across the world are failing while the recent Google tax deal may have the effect of demonstrating that while the country at large, and the most vulnerable especially, are facing austerity and cuts to vital services, large and powerful interests are able to avoid contributing all but relatively small amounts of tax.

For some who voted Conservative in 2015, this support tended to be because of a sense of competence rather than fairness so events in the global economy may be of greater concern to the current government. While the 2012 Omnishambles Budget was an entirely self-inflicted wound, the slowdown in the global economy may have a similar effect on perceptions of the economic competence of the government.

Additionally, the fallout of the new junior doctors’ contracts and the government’s handling of it should help the Opposition while Conservatives splits over Europe mean Labour should then be in a position to capitalise.

Labour’s ‘ground game’ appears to be in good order. At the general election Labour gained ten marginal seats from the Conservatives despite the overall result, with three in the North West region. The comfortable victory in the Oldham West & Royton by-election, where Labour increased its majority, showed that Labour has maintained its strong operation during the new leadership. In low turn-out local elections, this ground game should be enough for a party with a new and enthused activist base to perform strongly.

Finally, London’s demographics are highly favourable to Labour and it would be an enormous shock if Labour did not win the Mayoral contest. Whilst Boris Johnson won two terms as mayor these results were very much the exception when compared with all other the election results in the capital since 2000. Labour holds the majority of the members of parliament in London (45/73),

Of Labour’s new members, around 40,000 are in London which should provide enough activists to win the contest.

So Labour has many structural factors in its favour ahead of the May 2016 English local elections. Whilst the 2012 local elections were a high water mark for the Ed Miliband-led Labour party, that result was not particularly impressive. The May 2016 votes are midterm elections which mean Labour should comfortably outperform the Government, while six years of incumbency and austerity should also favour the Labour party. A weakening economy should undermine the Conservatives record on the economy, while the Google tax deal will further undermine the Government’s claims to fairness and the EU referendum sees members of the Government arguing in public.

Finally, the highest profile contest is for Mayor of London – a city where Labour has an overwhelming advantage in local demographics and recent electoral history.

What constitutes a good or bad result may be difficult to decide. Labour should be looking to gain at least 100-150 seats. If Labour fails to make these gains, it will not have advanced from its position under Miliband. However, more than seats won or lost, it is the national equivalent vote share that will be important. If Labour secures more than the Conservatives in this election, then it can perhaps be confident of forming the next government. If not then a Labour administration after 2020 is unlikely.

More than just numbers of seats won it matters where they are won. Labour must win seats on councils such as  Thurrock, Watford and Welwyn Hatfield to show it is relevant in the South. If Labour does not gain additional seats on these councils plus swing seats in areas like Derby, Milton Keynes and Southampton, then it will have been a poor night for the party.


Martin Rogers is a freelance researcher and writer who recently graduated from the Department of Social Policy at the LSE. He has been a Labour activist for nearly ten years.

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