The last big test

Posted by on April 22, 2014 in Articles, Progress | 0 comments

The last big test

This post originally appeared on Progress Online.

Labour should be aiming for steady progress rather than huge gains in next month’s local elections

The European and local elections next month will be the last big test of UK-wide public opinion before the general election in May 2015.

The headline result from these polls will be who wins the largest share of the national vote in the European parliament election. The contest appears to be between Labour and the United Kingdom Independence party, with the interesting situation that the conventional Westminster wisdom is that Ukip will win, but every poll so far showing Labour in the lead. The Conservatives are expected to come third and the Liberal Democrats to suffer a near-death experience. The climate is very different to what it was at the last European election in June 2009, where the expenses scandal and economic collapse produced an extremely bleak situation for Labour with a humiliating vote share of 15.7 per cent and 13 members of the European parliament. Things, as the song goes, can only get better.

In the 2014 elections, a three-way tie with Ukip and the Tories with about 24 per cent of the vote would yield Labour 20-22 seats – and Labour should be able to hope for more than that, although the party will not get the sort of 38-40 per cent support it enjoys in national polls because some normally Labour voters tend to support smaller parties such as the Greens in European elections. The two members of the European parliament elected in 2009 under the banner of the British National party will almost certainly be defeated, so whatever else happens there is some good news to come from these elections. The results in Scotland will no doubt be analysed (probably overanalysed) for what they might tell us about the independence referendum.

When looking for the political message from a set of local elections there are two key measurements. One is the area where the elections are taking place, and the other is what happened the last time the seats were contested. The 2013 county elections took place disproportionately in Tory England, while the battleground in 2014 is more on Labour’s turf in London, the metropolitan boroughs and a scatter of unitary and district councils (there will also be local elections for Northern Ireland’s 11 new local authorities).

Labour’s performance in 2010, in contrast with the 2009 elections, was not too bad. The higher turnout caused by having the general election on the same day as the local elections meant that Labour did not suffer from differential turnout because its supporters are harder to get to the polls. The party’s local election gains in London were stronger than expected, helped by the relatively low general election swing in the capital. Labour gained control in 10 London boroughs, adding to its successful defence of the seven councils whose majorities survived the bad results in 2006. Controlling 17 of the 32 boroughs is a similar result to previous reasonably good years like 1986, 1994 and 1998. Labour has limited room for expansion in 2014 in terms of gaining control of new councils.

Labour’s easiest target is Harrow, where the party lost control in 2013 thanks to a local split. Repeating the 2010 result would be enough, but there is room to gain several seats too. The next easiest is probably Redbridge, despite the fact that Labour has never had a majority in that east London borough in its 50-year history. Labour already runs Merton on a minority basis (the Conservatives split here, with several defections to Ukip) and in 2010 it reduced the Conservative majority in neighbouring Croydon to four seats, but these south London councils are a little harder than they look. To win, Labour has little room for error because the result will hang on small numbers of marginal wards in each place. A victory in Hammersmith and Fulham would be a particular prize, given that it is a Tory ‘flagship’ council pursuing aggressive social engineering of the sort that has made Wandsworth safely Conservative. It needs a relatively small swing, but the demographic trends and Tory organisation provide strong headwinds. Labour is also targeting Barnet, although outright control would be an excellent result even with the council’s unpopular Conservative regime. In Labour boroughs such as Haringey, Brent and Camden the party will be hoping for strong gains from the Liberal Democrats. Labour mayors should be easily re-elected in Hackney, Lewisham and Newham and assembly member John Biggs is putting up a strong challenge to independent mayor Lutfur Rahman in Tower Hamlets.


London borough election results since 2002

Vote share

Council seats

Con %

Lab %

LD %

Other %
































2010 GE





2012 list





2013 poll






Local data source: Local Elections Handbooks, Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher. Poll: YouGov London voting intention poll, 8-10 October 2013


Labour also has little room to gain control of additional councils in the metropolitan boroughs because the results in most of them in 2010 were respectable, and strong Labour gains in 2011 and 2012 have already won over most of the traditional marginal boroughs like Bury and Dudley. Labour has majorities in 29 of the 36 metropolitan boroughs; if the party could add three (Bradford, Walsall, possibly Calderdale) it would equal the all-time high point of 32, which it hit in 1996. Control of  Trafford, one of the last two Tory metropolitan councils is difficult, but largest single-party status is feasible.

Among the other unitary and district councils with elections in 2014 there are comparatively few viable Labour targets. Every seat in Milton Keynes is up for election because of new ward boundaries. While it would be very ambitious for Labour to hope for a majority, being the largest single party on the council is certainly possible and would be a helpful sign of progress in the south.

Labour could potentially win a number of the smaller district councils, but in many of them there is not much of a margin of error – Labour needs to repeat its 2012 performance, or do better, to gain control in 2014 in Amber Valley, Crawley, Tamworth, West Lancashire and Worcester. All of these are parliamentary marginals. Despite the one-vote Tory majority in Swindon, Labour would have to do significantly better than in 2012 to win there. It would also require hitting every single target to deprive the Tories of Peterborough, but Southend should fall from the Tories’ grip for the first time since 2000 and Cambridge should also revert to Labour control.

The local and European elections will affect each other. National campaigning, probably involving low-grade argument over Europe and immigration, is likely to obscure the local issues more than usual. The Ukip vote will be boosted by the context and the differential turnout – the party’s core supporters are particularly likely to make it to the polling station. Differential turnout should also help Labour a bit in the European elections. While turnout is impressive in neither type of election, it is generally somewhat better in areas with local elections than those with just the European election. In 2009 this tilted the voting towards the shire counties, while in 2014 urban areas will be more evenly represented, particularly in the northern regions and the west Midlands.

Labour should not approach the 2014 elections with unrealistic expectations – such as getting near its national poll rating in the European election, or gaining swaths of new councils – but with quiet confidence and the strategic aim of strengthening its position in the key parliamentary marginal seats.

Image courtesy of Rock Cohen.

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