Labour have enjoyed a steady 4-5% lead over the Conservatives in the polls for the last few months, which if carried through to a General Election would be enough to put Labour into government. But given the number of high-profile polling misses in the last decade, including Ed Miliband’s failure to translate poll leads of up to 10% into election victory, there is scepticism as to whether Labour really is on the path to power. This seems to be behind the bizarre reluctance of Tory MPs to rid themselves of a Prime Minister regarded by most of the public with contempt. In part, this scepticism has been fuelled by Labour’s apparently lacklustre performance in by-elections and the most recent set of local elections, where the Liberal Democrats were the big winners. But a closer look at the numbers shows that Tory strategists should be a lot more worried than they appear to be.
The early take on the May local elections was that while Labour had done very well in London, it had stalled in the places it needed to win back to stand a chance of forming the next government. No one seriously tried to deny that the Tories did very badly, but Labour only made a net gain of 108 council seats across the UK, while the Lib Dems gained 224 according to the BBC calculations.
The most crucial thing to remember in looking at this set of local elections, is that the last time these council seats were fought in England was in 2018. This was before the Brexit wars broke out in earnest and before the collapse of the Red Wall in 2019. Back in 2018 Labour MPs still represented Hartlepool, Bolsover, Blackpool South, Redcar and Blyth Valley – so merely achieving the same level of support in those areas as it had in 2018 implies that Labour would recover most of these seats. The 2021 local elections had showed little progress from the disastrous General Election result, with Labour doing worse in Leave voting areas than in Remain voting ones. But results from the 590 English wards outside London which held elections both last year and this year show that Labour’s vote share increased by +3% in Remain voting places, but by +6% in Leave voting ones compared to last year.
However Labour tended do less well in areas which voted heavily to Leave (with the notable exception of Cumberland where Labour took the council). Nuneaton & Bedworth and Amber Valley which were once seen as realistic Labour targets, but which voted Leave by 66% and 60% respectively, continued to move away from Labour.
But many of Labour’s better results came in places which have often been overlooked due to the current focus on Red Wall seats – places which overall voted Leave but not by large margins, and which are neither particularly deprived nor wildly affluent. Labour took control of Southampton and Crawley councils, and made significant progress in Swindon – all areas containing parliamentary seats which Labour held in the 2000s but subsequently lost. Labour also gained council seats in Milton Keynes which has historically tended to return Tory MPs but where demographic trends have moved it steadily towards Labour. In short, the local elections indicate that there are some “Red Wall” seats which are now probably beyond Labour’s grasp but more traditional swing seats where Labour performed relatively poorly in the 2010s are now very much within reach and that these would be enough to put Labour into government.
Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats are starting to move back into their previous role as a catch-all party of protest. Victories in Somerset in the locals, and in North Shropshire by-election (both areas which voted Leave) taken together with the crushing of the Conservative Opposition in St Albans and victory in the Chesham & Amersham by-election last year (both areas which both voted Remain) show the potential breadth of their appeal. The local election results suggest that the Lib Dems would take at least a dozen seats from the Tories in a General Election, maybe up to 20.
The revival of the Lib Dems is important for Labour because the evidence from all the recent by-elections, shows that there is now a significant amount of anti-Tory tactical voting happening. This was true not just in the constituencies which the Lib Dems won, but in Hartlepool, Old Bexley & Sidcup and Batley & Spen where Labour were the main challenger, and the Lib Dem vote consequently dropped compared to the 2019 General Election. The upcoming by-elections in Wakefield and Tiverton & Honiton are expected to provide further examples of voters deliberating moving between the Lib Dems and Labour depending on who they judge is most likely to take the seat from the Tories.
This level of tactical voting has not been seen in recent General Elections, partly because of the ongoing reputational damage suffered by the Liberal Democrats after the Coalition with the Tories, and partly because the prospect of Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister scared many liberal Tories into sticking with the Conservatives. Tactical voting means that traditional polls and election models underestimate the losses that the Tories would suffer at a General Election and it is a hugely underrated achievement of Keir Starmer’s leadership that he has de-toxified the Labour party to the extent that many right-leaning voters no longer feel too frightened to abandon the Conservatives.
Labour is in a better electoral situation right now than many observers give it credit for, but there is little resilience built into its position. The Projected National Share from the local elections showed Labour 5% ahead of the Conservatives, in line with recent polling. But in 2012 Ed Miliband achieved a 7% lead over the Tories in local elections and still lost the following General Election. The last two elections where the government had changed hands (1997 and 2010), were preceded by a series of very good results for the Opposition parties in the local elections; Labour has not managed to build up a run of strong local election results since losing power in 2010.
An economy with stagnant growth and cripplingly high inflation is clearly damaging the Tories, and few economists think that the UK will be completely out of the woods by the time the next election comes around. But politics has proved wildly unpredictable in recent years and particularly if Tory MPs manage to locate their missing spinal columns and ditch Boris Johnson, the default assumption that Labour will be forming the next government might be in jeopardy. Labour needs to lock in its existing advantages – the public are clearly turning against the Tories but there is still a lack of clarity about the positive difference that a future Labour government would make to voters’ lives. Labour’s task must be to build the same sense of inevitability about winning power as there was in the years leading up to 1997.
Head of political polling at Opinium Research Chris Curtis recently compiled a report on how perceptions of Labour have changed since September 2021. Read it here.