If a week is a long time in politics, then 2014, when the council seats elected last night were last fought, seems like an entirely different epoch. Since then, British politics has witnessed two general elections, a seismic referendum, and the most unpredictable election results in living memory. It is therefore perhaps not a surprise that the 2018 local elections have thrown up a complex result. In London, Labour has struggled to live up to sky-high expectations, unsurprisingly failing to take traditional Tory strongholds like Wandsworth, but also falling short in key target Barnet. In the borough and district councils outside the capital UKIP support has collapsed, and the redistribution of those Eurosceptic votes has driven swings in many English towns, including Plymouth, Nuneaton and Basildon.
Over the past few weeks, many prominent Labour figures have been making enthusiastic forecasts about the party’s chances in the local elections, particularly in London. However, exuberant predictions that Labour might have a chance of gaining traditional Conservative strongholds such as Wandsworth and Westminster have proved to be wildly over-optimistic. Looking at the raw numbers from the authorities that have declared so far Labour seems to have performed reasonably, having gained a modest number of seats at the expense of third parties, and taking back control of Plymouth. However, the unrealistic expectations of Labour’s progress have created an impression of underperformance, even though the national vote share, if replicated at a general election, would likely produce a result not dissimilar to last year’s general election.
Pre-election predictions suggested that UKIP would have a dismal night, and the party has lived down to expectations. The challenge for UKIP was astonishingly difficult, following the internal scandals and volatility that have plagued the party since the EU referendum. Additionally, the UKIP councillors defending their seats last night were elected in 2014, the year of the party’s peak performance. The results of yesterday’s elections are perhaps one of the most brutal political examples of ‘regression to the mean’. At the time of writing, UKIP have retained just two of the 94 seats they were defending (although former UKIP councillors standing as independents have performed better in Thurrock and Basildon). The destination of former UKIP votes has driven many of the changes of seats in English boroughs, with both Labour and the Conservatives benefitting in different parts of the country.
So what’s changed? This morning’s political map of the UK does not seem to be very different to the vote shares secured at last year’s snap general election. The Conservatives will be cheered that there is no evidence of Labour making significant progress in the marginal areas they need to win to install Jeremy Corbyn in 10 Downing Street. But there is also little indication that the Conservatives are reaching out to sections of the electorate they need to persuade in order to regain a parliamentary majority. We should, however, avoid drawing too many conclusions about Britain’s political future from tonight’s result. Only a relatively small number of English council seats were up for election, and there were no local elections in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The next general election could be as far as four years away; in today’s volatile political climate, 2022 seems a lifetime in the future.
This article was written by Richard Parry, Senior Account Manager at MPC.