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The Tories lost the recent local elections. Did Labour win them well enough?

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With last week's local elections now behind us, we examine what last week means for next year and Labour's general election chances.
Last week had been pencilled in as Boris Johnson’s favoured date of the UK General Election when he was Prime Minister. But that was before his fall, and the Conservatives tumbled to 15% behind in the polls. Rishi Sunak has now circled October of next year for the general election, meaning he’ll have another set of uncomfortable local elections before then. So, what does last week mean for next year? Some things are clear. As usual, the winners of local elections over-interpret and the losers usually under-play them; both responses are a mistake. These were significant elections covering 80% of England’s electorate outside of London. They are the most comprehensive pre general election evidence likely to be available on the relative strengths of the parties. No matter how we look at it, this was a bleak outcome for the Conservatives. They won just 2,296 of the 8,076 council seats, a net loss of 1,061 against an already very poor performance when they were last contested in 2019. They went into the elections with a majority of councillors in 80 of the 230 councils, and emerged having lost 50 of them, mitigated by just three gains. For Labour, this was the best set of local election results since they left office in 2010, and arguably their best since the mid-1990s. They won 2,674 seats, a net gain of 536 seats and the first time they have bettered the Tories in this cycle of councils since 1999. Their total of 71 council wins was a net increase of 22 over their pre-election aggregate. And because the wards and councils in urban areas where Labour wins most of its seats have larger electorates than those in rural areas, these raw figures understate the true margin of Labour’s advantage. But did Labour do well enough to be confident of general election victory? The starting point for this assessment is the Projected National Share of the Vote (PNS) calculated by Sir John Curtice of Strathclyde University. He estimated the national shares of the vote if council elections had been held in all parts of the UK. Sir John adjudged that Labour would have polled 35%, the Conservatives’ 26%, and the Liberal Democrats’ 20%. Labour’s 9% lead is its largest in local elections since 1997 but the figures fall short of their average 45%-29% lead in the opinion polls for a general election. Labour will also be examining this 35% figure because it is identical to their PNS rating last year. Most pundits agree that these elections have confirmed the story of the polls which is that there is a real prospect of a Labour government, and possibly one with an overall majority. Labour will have been especially pleased with their comprehensive victory in Swindon, a genuine bellwether town, as well as their gain of Medway Council in Kent. And Brexit seems to be less salient since the Brexit referendum. Labour won in Dover and Thanet, both of which had Labour MPs until 2010 and which voted heavily for Brexit. And in the traditional marginal regions of the Midlands, they regained their old strongholds in Mansfield and Stoke-on-Trent as well as a string of Brexit backing districts in key marginal areas like Derbyshire and Staffordshire. They are also pleased with strong showings in Middlesbrough and Hartlepool. But in some vital marginal areas the Tories held their own, such as in Teesside and in the Black Country. There may already be coalition in our politics but not the one that the pundits are discussing. There is a real danger for any incumbent government if they are campaigning among an electorate who have already made up their minds. It feels to me that the preeminent sentiment at the next election is likely to be one of change, which is always hazardous territory for any government. And herein lies the real jeopardy for the Conservatives. A local coalition of a well-informed electorate may be likely to coalesce around whichever party is best placed in each constituency to defeat their incumbent Conservative MP. This was undoubtedly at play last week where both the Lib Dems and Greens won council seats in parts of the country where Labour isn’t strong. And what about those parts of the country that didn’t have elections? In Wales, Plaid Cymru are in turmoil. In Scotland, Labour has again significantly narrowed the deficit with the SNP, although support for independence remains robust. And it’s worth remembering that for every eight seats Labour can win in Scotland, it reduces the swing Labour needs in England and Wales by 1%. So, while these elections were in England only, the biggest story from last week may well have been in Scotland.

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