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 and Jeremy Corbyn in the equivalent sets of elections to ensure that I suggest targets for Keir Starmer that are comparable. To try to see through the inevitable Tory spin about how many gains Labour should make, with absurd numbers like 800 seats being cited in The Telegraph, it’s important to look at the previous results for these sets of elections.
6,860 council seats are up in 200 councils. The councils up for election include Labour’s strongest territory in England: all the London boroughs and all the metropolitan boroughs except Liverpool. The following elections are being held:
- Every seat in all 32 Scottish councils;
- Every seat in all 22 Welsh councils;
- Every seat in all 32 London borough councils;
- Every seat in four metropolitan borough councils (Birmingham, Bury, Rochdale, St Helens);
- One-third of the seats in 29 other metropolitan borough councils;
- Every seat in five unitary councils;
- One third of the seats in 16 unitary councils;
- Every seat in five district councils;
- Half the seats in six district councils;
- One-third of the seats in 49 district councils;
- The metro mayor South Yorkshire; and
- The mayors of Croydon, 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 should not expect massive changes in the number of councils that Labour controls. In those councils electing by thirds, it is the third of seats where Labour has already won most of the seats that are up – not the thirds where there are more gains to be made.
Between 2018, when these seats were last fought, and now, we had the period where Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership became most unpopular with the public, culminating in the 2019 general election defeat, which saw Labour slump to its lowest seat total since 1935. These elections are an important part of the process of organisational and political recovery Labour has been going through since that defeat and the subsequent change of leadership.
In London, where all 1,817 councillors are being elected, 2018 was already a spectacularly good year for Labour, and built on previous record years for seats in 2014 and 2010. 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 and whether enough time has passed since the Corbyn era for Jewish residents to trust Labour with their votes yet.
In the metropolitan boroughs, Labour already controls all except eight. In the districts, Labour could gain control of Crawley and Worthing. It is difficult to see any unitary authorities where it is mathematically possible for Labour to make enough seat gains to take control. If Labour was to lose control of any councils, Sunderland is the ‘Red Wall’ target the Tories are targeting hardest.
In Scotland, the single transferable vote electoral system makes it difficult for any party to take a majority of seats on any council. The indicator we should therefore look at in Scotland is where we come in Scottish national vote share. Anas Sarwar is now competing with the Tories for second place, getting there would be important for positioning Labour as the main challenger to the SNP in the next general election. In Wales, 2017 was not a great year, so Labour will be hoping to regain control of Blaenau Gwent, Bridgend and Merthyr Tydfil – all of which were lost then.
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%t Labour share of the vote;
- 2002: 33%;
- 2006: 26%;
- 2010: 29% (general election);
- 2014: 31%; and
- 2018: 36%.
2018 was the best year for Labour at any point between 2012 and now, hence the seats being fought in England were won at a relative high-water mark for Labour. Note that last year Labour’s national vote share was only 29%.
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; and
- 2018: 6,468.
Currently, Labour has a total of 5,796 councillors – the lowest since 2010. We urgently need to be building on this total at this stage in the cycle.
Number of gains or losses. For comparison, here are the years since Margaret Thatcher came to power in which 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; and
- 2018: +79.
The sets of local elections not coinciding with a general election in which Labour lost seats while in opposition have been 1982 (the year of the Falklands war), 1985 (the year of the miners’ strike), 2016, 2017, 2019 and 2021. Given 2018 was already a relatively good year, building on two other rounds of gains in the same cycle of seats in 2010 and 2014, any further net gain in seats would be a welcome sign.
Control of councils. The number of councils that 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;
- 2019 – 99; and
- 2021 – 91.
As noted above, there are only a small number of councils that could change hands, so any net gain would be welcome.
The location of councils and seats that change hands is important too: we need to make seat gains in councils covering areas similar to seats we need to gain to get an overall majority in a general election – Barnet, Burnley, Bury, Colchester, Crawley, Cumberland, Derby, Flintshire, Hartlepool, Hastings, Milton Keynes, Plymouth, Rossendale, Southampton, Swindon, Worthing and Wrexham, for example.
It’s important to remember what has happened in those places since these council seats were last fought in 2018. In the 2019 general election we lost ‘Red Wall’ seats including both Bury constituencies, Burnley, Wrexham and Derby North, and only just clung on in Sunderland. The impact of the antisemitism scandal saw us defeated in all three Barnet seats and neighbouring Harrow East. Lack of faith in our stance on defence saw us defeated badly in Plymouth Moorview. We were routed in traditional swing seats like Swindon, Stevenage, Hastings and Crawley.
These are all areas with battleground councils in this set of elections. Labour is trying to recover electorally in very diverse places across the whole country – just two years on from changing leader after Corbyn’s 2019 defeat. The effects of the political and organisational turmoil of 2015 to 2019, be that the Equality and Human Rights Commission findings of “unlawful acts of harassment and discrimination“, huge amounts of cash being diverted to fight legal battles and run a £1m music festival, the loss of large numbers of MPs and councillors, the departure of almost all our experienced pre-2015 staff and infighting that weakened many Constituency Labour Parties, are still being overcome.
Labour’s recovery is proceeding quicker than most people could have predicted or hoped. But it is still ongoing and so is likely to be visible in these elections in places, but not everywhere yet.