Luke Akehurst: What would a good series of local election results look like?

Luke Akehurst

In the run up to every set of May elections when there isn’t a general election I write a guide to what constitutes success for Labour.

I’ve been writing this since 2011, so I am able to look back at the benchmarks I set for Ed Miliband in the equivalent set of elections in May 2013 (May 2012 for the Scottish and all except one of the Welsh councils), to ensure that I suggest targets for Jeremy Corbyn that are comparable – though of course we now know based on the defeat in 2015 that the electoral cycle means that the Labour Party needs to do a lot better now than it was doing in the mid-term of the 2010-2015 parliament in order to win in 2020.

To try to see through the inevitable Tory spin about how many gains Labour should make it’s important to look at the previous results for these sets of elections and compare with them.

The English councils up for election this year are primarily rural, and exclude almost all the metropolitan areas and London, and hence not great territory for Labour. This is also a relatively fallow year, with the number of English councillors up for election lower than in the other three years of each four year cycle of local elections.

The following elections are being held:

  • All 1,811 councillors in the 27 English County Councils with a two-tier system of local government (county and district councils covering the same areas).
  • All 544 councillors in seven English Unitary Councils, most of which used to be County Councils before reorganisation.
  • All 55 councillors in Doncaster, a Metropolitan Borough Council that has uniquely switched from elections in thirds to all-out elections.
  • Six new Elected Regional Mayors for Combined Authorities.
  • The Elected Mayors of Doncaster and North Tyneside.
  • All 1,222 councillors in the 32 Scottish councils.
  • All 1,253 councillors in the 22 Welsh councils.

For the English county and unitary council elections the key question is whether Labour can hold control of the two East Midlands counties which were our only gains in 2013, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. This will be tough as Labour has only 34 of 66 seats in Nottinghamshire and 43 of 64 in Derbyshire. If the national polling situation was more positive then we would be looking to move to overall control in Lancashire (where we hold 39 of 84 seats) and Northumberland (32 of 67) but staying in minority/coalition of both looks the best that can be hoped for. Another key indicator will be whether Labour ends up with more county councillors than the Lib Dems, or slips into third place – we are defending 374 to their 239.

Of the six new elected metro mayors, Labour ought to be comfortable winners in Greater Manchester and Liverpool City Region, where MPs Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram are the Labour candidates, whilst Sion Simon MEP winning the West Midlands and Sue Jeffrey winning Teeside would be significant wins in more mixed political territory. The West of England contest, where Labour’s candidate is Lesley Mansell, is a bit of a lottery as it includes Bristol where we won the Mayor last year, but also some very non-Labour areas like Bath, so everything will come down to transfers from eliminated candidates as it is a supplementary vote system where voters cast a first and second preference.

The two mayoral authorities, Doncaster and North Tyneside, sound like they should be safely Labour but were actually both gains in 2013 and have a history of local election volatility, so holding the mayors there will be an achievement.

In Scotland, councillors are elected by Single Transferable Vote, not First-Past-the-Post, so the results end up being roughly proportional to vote share, and it is very rare for councils to have a single party majority. 2012 was an unexpectedly good year for Labour in Scotland after the poor 2011 Scottish Parliament results. Labour is defending 394 council seats and a 31 per cent vote share last time, and overall control of Glasgow, North Lanarkshire, Renfrewshire and West Dunbartonshire. Since 2012 there has been the independence referendum and the catastrophic 2015 General Election result in Scotland, and the current polling suggests Labour will be on about 17 per cent and come third behind the Tories. Coming second above the Tories in vote share or holding more councillors than the Tories would be big achievements in the circumstances.

In Wales, Labour had a very good year in 2012, taking 36 per cent of the vote, and gaining control of eight councils for a total of 10, and adding 237 councillors for a total of 577. Success this time will be measured by how many of those 2012 gains are held on to. The councils gained in 2012 were Blaenau Gwent, Bridgend, Caerphilly, Cardiff, Merthyr Tydfil, Newport, Swansea, and Torfaen. Cardiff will be particularly iconic as it is the capital and largest city and has potential to swing to the Lib Dems because of the fallout from Labour’s positioning on Brexit.

There are at least four ways of measuring Labour’s national performance: national projected vote share (which the BBC calculates for the whole country including areas not voting this year), raw number of councillors, number of councillors gained or lost 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:

  • 1997 44 per cent Labour share of the vote
  • 2001 42 per cent
  • 2005 36 per cent
  • 2009 22 per cent
  • 2013 29 per cent

2013 was a bad year in the previous cycle. We need to be getting around 37 – 39 per cent just to be in the same place we were in 2011 and 2012 under Ed Miliband, which wasn’t enough to win the subsequent General Election. In the unlikely event that we exceed that we almost certainly beat the Tories on vote share too.

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

  • 1997 – 10,608 Labour councillors
  • 2001 – 8,487
  • 2005 – 6,518
  • 2009 – 4,436
  • 2013 – 6,850

Currently Labour has a total of 6,679 councillors. We need to be building on this total at this stage in the cycle because previous cycles tell us that over the life time of this parliament we need to get to over 8,000 if we are going to win a General Election. This doesn’t look likely given the polling position in Scotland or the UK as a whole.

Number of gains or losses. For comparison here are the years since Thatcher came to power when Labour has made net gains (in the other 18 years not listed, we lost seats):

  • 1980 +601 Labour councillors
  • 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
  • 2012 +847
  • 2013 +288
  • 2014 +256

The only non-General Election years in which Labour has lost seats while in opposition were 1982 (the year of the Falklands war) and 1985 (the year of the miners’ strike) and last year, 2016. As explained above we need to be making net gains this year to start to move us from the current 6,679 councillors to the 8,000 we need by 2020 if we are going to win a General Election.

Control of councils. 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
  • 2012 – 114
  • 2013 – 117
  • 2014 – 120
  • 2015 – 114
  • 2016 – 114

We need to stay in the range we have been in since 2012 – over 114 councils controlled, in order not to be out of the game in 2020, though it needs to be repeated we didn’t win in 2015 despite holding this many councils. If we take Scotland out of the picture we need to stay on 110 councils in England and Wales.

The location of councils and seats that change hands is important too: we need to avoid losses in councils covering areas similar to seats we lost in the 2010 General Election when we lost power.

One final indicator won’t appear in the media headlines but is worth looking through the detailed results for: any surprise Labour seat gains in rural county councils. These will be a good indication of whether the big increase in party membership is bringing Labour back to life in previously moribund areas.

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