Local elections: ‘The right split vote is more damaging than left splits’

Christabel Cooper
Photo: Alexandru Nika/Shutterstock

Local elections are drawn-out affairs. Unlike in a general election where the result is known by the morning, the outcomes of some of most intensely studied contests will not be known until Saturday afternoon.

This means that the analysis can shift as the results come in. There will be opportunities for the Conservatives to switch up the narrative, particularly having hung on in Tees Valley and especially if they also hold the West Midlands mayoralty. 

But – with the enormous caveat that only a third of the results had come in as this was written – it is overall looking pretty grim for the government. At of noon Friday, the Tories had lost around half the council seats they are defending. Labour has won control of Redditch, Thurrock, Hartlepool and Rushmoor as well as winning the Blackpool South by-election, with an enormous 26% swing in their favour.

Overnight shows covering the elections will be grateful to the legendary abilities of North-Easterners to count ballot papers very, very quickly. The results in that region gave an early snapshot of what is happening.

Hartlepool continues trend of Labour outperforming in Leave areas

Particularly significant was the result in Hartlepool, where Labour took control of the council. The victory was the perfect ending to a story which began almost exactly three years ago when Peter Mandelson’s former seat was lost to the Conservatives in a by-election. This marked the lowest point of Keir Starmer’s leadership of Labour.

It seemed to indicate that Labour was nowhere close to winning back the Leave-voting seats it lost in the 2019 General Election.

Fast-forward to today, and we find that Hartlepool forms part of a set of results in recent by-elections and local elections where Labour has actually done better in former Leave-voting areas than elsewhere.

This is important because in the 2010s Labour often racked up large majorities in urban constituencies (which mostly voted Remain), but failed to win over Leave-voting marginals.

Reform not existential threat to Tories but still inflict damage

Meanwhile, many will be looking to these results to answer the question as to whether Reform pose an existential threat to the Conservatives or whether they are a paper tiger. The early results confirm the same story as has emerged from recent by-elections, that neither story is completely accurate. The truth is that Reform are not an existential threat by themselves, but they can nevertheless do significant damage to the Tories.

Reform are not doing as well as UKIP in the run up to the 2015 General Election, either in the polls or in by-elections and local elections. But in 2015 UKIP drew up to a third of its support from former Labour voters.

Currently Reform is drawing nearly all of its support from former Conservative voters and can therefore have more of an impact even when polling lower numbers. And crucially in 2015, the Conservatives were not simultaneously ceding large numbers of votes to Labour.

It is the combination of losing its more left-leaning 2019 voters to Labour and its more right-leaning 2019 voters to Reform, that is so dangerous to them. This double-whammy was evident in Blackpool South and led directly to the huge swing against the Tories.

However Reform has only fielded a full set of candidates in a small number of councils. Many of the councils where they have put forward a full slate, such as Hartlepool and Sunderland, have already been called.

It is likely that as more councils report results, their impact will lessen and the Conservatives will appear to be doing a little better (and doubtless Tory spokespeople will make much of this in the next 24 hours). But given that Reform intends to stand candidates across the country in a General Election, we should probably look to those earlier results as more indicative of the potential damage they can do.

Tory mayoral success is from candidates who distanced themselves from party

Another Conservative attempt to change the narrative could come from the results of the mayoral elections. Andy Street in the West Midlands could hold on when results emerge this Saturday after Ben Houchen did so in Tees Valley today, which will be claimed as a victory.

But given that both men have been at pains to distance themselves from the central Conservative Party, this could hardly be seen as an endorsement of the Conservatives in general. Even the mayorals could provide some unpleasant headlines for the government. The North Yorkshire mayoralty, at first glance, looks like it should lean towards the Tories as it covers Rishi Sunak’s seat of Richmond. But Labour Together’s polling, taken together with the stunning result of the Selby and Ainsty by-election last year, suggests that Labour could well win this race.

Disappointment for Labour over Gaza

Not everything has gone Labour’s way so far. In Oldham, Labour lost control of the council. This area has a large Muslim population and Labour’s National Campaign Co-ordinator Pat McFadden acknowledged that strong feelings about the events in Gaza were a factor here. In areas such as Bristol, we may see very progressive voters move towards the Greens. But splits among voters on the left are a significantly smaller problem for Labour, than the splits on the right are for the Conservatives.

Later today, the BBC will publish its Projected National Share figures, which estimate how well the main parties would have done if local elections were being held across the country. This is one of the better measures of success in the locals, as it allows us to compare local election results from different years. In 2023, Labour held a 9 point lead over the Conservatives on this measure. Labour will at want to at least match that number.

But in the end, whatever the full results of the local elections look like, they cannot predict the result of a General Election which could be seven or eight months away. In 2017, Labour suffered the worst defeat in local elections in a decade, followed by nearly drawing level with the Conservatives in the General Election only a matter of weeks later. But so far, these results look bad for the Tories and Rishi Sunak will struggle to uncover many glimmers of hope for his beleaguered party.

See more coverage of the 2024 local elections here.

Local election results 2024: National picture

READ MORE: Live updates on key local election results throughout the night

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READ MORE: Key local council elections to watch for clues on our general election chances

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READ MORE: What would good 2024 local election results look like for Labour?

READ MORE: Battleground PPCs optimistic’ on their local and general election chances

Local election results 2024: Inside key battleground campaigns

READ MORE: Labour says Tees swing boosts GE chances despite Houchen win

READ MORE: Meet Blackpool South’s new Labour MP after ‘seismic’ landslide

READ MORE: Labour loses Oldham amid ‘Gaza backlash’

READ MORE: Thurrock: Labour calls victory in Leave-voting target seat

READ MORE: Hartlepool: Labour takes control in ‘Red Wall’ town

READ MORE: Tees Valley: Meet Labour candidate vying to oust Ben Houchen

READ MORE: Hartlepool: Inside Labour’s bid to take back control in ‘red wall’ town

READ MORE: North East: ‘Why Jamie Driscoll’s campaign should give Labour pause for thought’

READ MORE: Tom Baldwin: ‘What Blackpool’s deckchairs tell us about its by-election’

READ MORE: Dudley: Where Labour’s local campaign began, and it cannot afford to lose

READ MORE: North Herts: ‘We want to show Labour can demolish the blue wall’

READ MORE: Adur: How a red wave can end 25-year Tory grip on south coast


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