Luke Akehurst: What would good 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 2014 to ensure that I suggest targets for Jeremy Corbyn that are comparable. Of course we now know, based on the defeat in 2015, that the electoral cycle means the Labour Party must do a lot better now than it was doing in the mid-term of the 2010-2015 parliament in order to win in 2022.

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.

4,350 seats are up in 150 councils. This is the second largest set of local elections in each four-year cycle, with the largest number of seats up for election since 2015.

The councils up for election this year are all in England and include all the metropolitan areas and London, i.e. Labour’s strongest territory.

The following elections are being held:

  • Every seat in all 32 London borough councils
  • Every seat in 4 metropolitan borough councils where there have been boundary changes (Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester and Newcastle-Upon-Tyne)
  • One third of the seats in the other 30 metropolitan borough councils
  • Every seat in the Hull unitary council
  • One third of the seats in 16 other unitary councils
  • Every seat in seven district councils
  • Half the seats in six other district councils
  • One third of the seats in 55 other district councils
  • The metro mayor of the new South Yorkshire Sheffield City Region
  • The mayors of Hackney, Lewisham, Newham, Tower Hamlets and Watford

There are very few councils that could change hands out of those up for election this year, so we shouldn’t expect massive changes in the number of councils Labour controls. In London, 2014 was already a spectacularly good year for Labour, but there has been further demographic and political movement towards Labour in the capital.

Barnet is the most realistic London target for Labour to gain, but the local position is complicated by it being the borough with the largest Jewish community – it is here there will be most concern over recent antisemitism claims within Labour.

Then there’s Wandsworth, which has been a Tory flagship since 1978 but voted heavily against Brexit. Longer shots are Hillingdon, Westminster and Bexley.

In the mets, Labour already controls all except six boroughs. The boroughs that Labour could gain overall control of are Calderdale, Dudley, Kirklees, Trafford and Walsall.

In the districts, Labour could gain control of Amber Valley, Carlisle, Worcester and Newcastle-under-Lyme (where boundary changes mean every seat is up for election). Unitary councils that Labour could gain control of are Milton Keynes, North East Lincolnshire, Plymouth and Swindon.

In the unlikely event that Labour was to lose control of any councils, Birmingham, Bradford and Derby are the most vulnerable.

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:

  • 1998: 37 per cent Labour share of the vote
  • 2002: 33 per cent
  • 2006: 26 per cent
  • 2010: 29 per cent (general election)
  • 2014: 31 per cent

2014 was a bad year in the previous cycle, when Ed Miliband’s mid-term poll leads had already almost disappeared. We need to be getting around 37 to 39 per cent just to be in the same place we were in 2011 and 2012 under Ed Miliband, though that wasn’t enough to win the subsequent general election.

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

  • 1998: 10,411 Labour councillors
  • 2002: 8,117
  • 2006: 6,176
  • 2010: 4,831
  • 2014: 7,098

Currently Labour has a total of 6,297 councillors as we lost seats we had gained under Ed Miliband in 2016 and 2017. We need to be building on this total at this stage in the cycle because previous cycles tell us that over the lifetime of this parliament, we need to get to over 8,000 if we are going to win a general election.

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 lost seats while in opposition were 1982 (the year of the Falklands war), 1985 (the year of the miners’ strike), 2016 and 2017. As explained above, we need to be making net gains this year to start to move us from the current 6,297 councillors to the 8,000 we need by 2020 if we are going to win a general election.

Gaining 200 seats would be a reasonable achievement this year as the seats up for election in London and the mets don’t provide much scope for further gains. We’ll be watching out, as usual, for direct Labour gains from the Tories. But the question this year is whether it is Labour or the Tories picking up more of the 125 seats UKIP is defending – as UKIP is likely to lose almost all of them.

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

  • 2002 – 136 (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
  • 2017 – 107

Given the small number of councils listed above that could change hands, picking up seven to get us back to the number of councils we controlled before last year would be good progress.

The location of councils and seats that change hands is important too: we need to make gains in councils covering areas similar to seats we need to gain to get an overall majority in a general election (e.g. Barnet, Wandsworth, Westminster, Calderdale, Dudley, Walsall, Amber Valley, Carlisle, Worcester, Milton Keynes, North East Lincolnshire, Plymouth and Swindon).

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 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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