What would good local election results in 2019 look like?

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. 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.

This is the largest set of local elections in each four-year cycle, with the largest number of seats up for election since the day of the 2015 general election, when these council seats were last contested – nearly 9,000 councillors in 260 councils.

The councils up for election this year are all in England and Northern Ireland and include almost all the non-London metropolitan areas but also nearly all the rural and small town district councils, which are not good territory for Labour. There are no elections in the Remain strongholds of London and Scotland, nor in heavily-Labour Wales, nor in some areas with unitary (single-tier) councils such as County Durham.

The following elections are being held:

  • One third of the seats in 33 of the 36 Metropolitan borough councils (the exceptions are Birmingham, Doncaster and Rotherham)
  • Every seat in 30 unitary councils
  • One third of the seats in 17 other unitary councils
  • Every seat in 130 district councils
  • One third of the seats in 49 other district councils
  • The metro-mayor of the new North of Tyne City Region
  • The mayors of Bedford, Copeland, Leicester, Mansfield and Middlesbrough
  • Every seat in all the 11 councils in Northern Ireland

The results last time these seats were contested were distorted by them being held on the same day as the general election. This increased turnout to about double that usually seen in council elections. Given that Labour voters have a lower propensity to turnout than Tories, for socio-economic reasons, the lower turnout this time will probably disproportionately harm Labour.

Whilst Labour is polling a bit better now nationally than the result it got in the 2015 general election, the distribution of the party’s votes has changed because of the patterns of support for both Brexit and Corbyn, boosting Labour in urban areas and university towns, and reducing its support in small towns and former mining areas in the Midlands and North.

The London boroughs where Remain and Corbyn are most popular are not voting this year, whilst a large number of seats are being contested in district councils covering small towns in the Midlands where Brexit is popular (and Labour is perceived as anti-Brexit) and Corbyn is unpopular.

For these reasons, Labour will be fighting a primarily defensive battle in the 2019 local elections, looking to minimise net losses rather than make net gains.

Councils that are Labour-controlled at the moment but might be vulnerable include Bolton of the Mets, Cheshire West & Chester, Hartlepool, Plymouth, Southampton, Telford & Wrekin of the unitaries, Cannock Chase, Crawley, Lancaster, North East Derbyshire and Rossendale of the districts.

Councils that Labour should, on paper, be near to taking control of from no overall control include Allerdale, Carlisle, Derby, Gravesham, Mansfield, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Redcar & Cleveland and Stoke-on-Trent. But many of these are very pro-Brexit areas where gains at the moment look unlikely.

Copeland and Middlesbrough are the most interesting of the mayoral contests – both could go Labour or Independent.

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 Labour’s national vote share, the estimated figures the BBC uses are as follows for previous years in this cycle:

  • 1995: 47%
  • 1999: 36%
  • 2003: 30%
  • 2007: 26%
  • 2011: 37%
  • 2015: 30% (general election result)

2015, when these seats were previously contested, was obviously a bad year in the previous cycle, as it saw Ed Miliband lose the general election on the same day. We need to be getting around 37 to 39% just to be in the same place we were in 2011 and 2012 under Ed Miliband, even though that wasn’t enough to win in 2015.

(Labour won a 30% share of the vote in 2003 and went on to win the next election, but it was then a governing party. An opposition party needs to be ahead in local elections, as the electoral cycle favours the party out of power nationally in mid-term local elections.)

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

  • 1995: 10,461
  • 1999: 9,134
  • 2003: 7,207
  • 2007: 5,463
  • 2011: 5,691
  • 2015: 6,895

Currently Labour has a total of 6,407 councillors as we lost seats we had gained under Ed Miliband in 2016 and 2017, then made limited offsetting gains in 2018. We need to be building on this total at this stage in the cycle. 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
  • 2018: +79

The only non-general election years in which Labour has lost seats while in opposition were 1982 (the year of the Falklands war), 1985 (the year of the miners’ strike) and 2016 and 2017 (the 2017 council elections were held before the general election). As explained above, we really ought to be making net gains this year to start to move us from the current 6,407 councillors to the 8,000 we need by 2022 if we are going to win a general election. But given the anomaly that we are contesting seats last fought on a high general election day turnout, it would be more reasonable to set the target this year of holding as many of the seats that we currently hold as we can.

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
  • 2018 – 105

Given the previous caveats about defending councils held on a high general election day turnout in 2015, holding those authorities we currently control is the benchmark, rather than making net gains.

The location of councils and seats that change hands is important too: we need to hold onto councils covering areas similar to seats we need to gain to get an overall majority in a general election.

One final indicator won’t appear in the media headlines but is worth looking through the detailed results for: Labour seat gains in areas where there was an unexpected swing to us in the 2017 general election, but we don’t have many councillors, such as Bedford, Canterbury, Peterborough and Portsmouth.

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