The 2017 Local Elections: Omen or Red Herring?

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The May 2017 local elections were a peculiar event. Usually the trend is that the opposition party excels in local elections held in years between general elections, while local elections held concurrently with general elections tend to favour the party that succeeds in the latter, with a party’s national success providing coattails at the local level. Nevertheless, dynamics particular to a local contest are important, and salient issues specific to individual campaigns can buck trends. The London Mayoral contest of 2016 is a case-in-point; despite Labour’s anaemic performance in the local elections across the board, Sadiq Khan won the London Mayoralty by a landslide.

The May 2017 local elections, while not held concurrently with the general election, took place in its shadow, the upcoming general election having been announced some weeks prior. For Labour, the night was a near unmitigated disaster, bar the successes of Steve Rotherham and Andy Burnham in the mayoral elections for Liverpool and Manchester respectably and a somewhat better performance in Wales than had been hoped. The party lost control of 7 councils and 382 councillors lost their seats. The Conservatives, meanwhile, succeeded in mayoral elections in the West Midlands, West of England, Cambridgeshire and Peterborough and even in Tees Valley – a historically Labour stronghold.

For Labour, the night was a near unmitigated disaster

Does this portend a Conservative landslide and concomitant Labour collapse in June? Or are these local elections more of a red herring, defined by atypical voting patterns resulting from specific local circumstances? In the West Midlands, for example, while Labour were for a long time considered the favourite, the Conservatives benefitted from an eminently qualified candidate, Andy Street, the former managing director of John lewis. Street’s victory was by no means achieved solely on the back of a Tory swing; far more important was his own personal qualities. There is also potential for the local elections to have exhibited wide-scale protest voting from Labour supporters, or alternatively wide-scale abstention by Labour voters. The stakes are higher in a general election, meaning that when June comes Labour may benefit from greater turnout and a reduced protest vote as traditional Labour supporters put aside their reservations.

But provincial Labour voters have tended to cast their protest votes, when they cast them, for UKIP. At the local elections, the UKIP vote collapsed, with the benefits going disproportionately to the Conservatives. This has led some to describe UKIP as a `gateway` for Labour supporters to switch to the Tories, with tribal links being shattered and a nationwide political realignment underway. In this case, the local elections represent an omen for the much feared Thatcher-style landslide by the Conservatives. In this scenario the goal for Labour would be damage limitation.

Labour may benefit from greater turnout and a reduced protest vote as traditional Labour supporters put aside their reservations.

For UKIP, the local elections were a catastrophe; the party seems to be sliding into irrelevance. The Lib Dems will also have studied the results with some concern; despite a small increase in their share of the popular vote, the party lost councillors. The hope for the Lib Dems is that the general election will better suit their political programme, as they can place Brexit front and centre of the campaign. The SNP, meanwhile, will be bracing themselves for a further Tory revival north of the border at the general election.

Local elections rarely have predictive potential for general elections – repeated successes for Labour under Miliband failed to translate into victory in the 2015 general election. Nevertheless, coming so close and coming in the shadow of the election on the 8th of June, Conservative supporters will come out of the local contests with a quiet but real sense of optimism. Conversely for supporters of opposition parties, the dominant emotion might be that of trepidation.

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