Behind the scenes of the fierce contest for England’s local councils another bare-knuckle fight is being fought. This one is not fought with voter I.D, leaflets, and rosettes, but instead with projections, predictions, and briefings to the press. This is the expectations battle, and Labour and Tory strategists are duking it out.
Local elections are vital because they determine who empties your bins and cares for your kids. But they also matter because of the clues they provide about future voter behaviour, especially in the general election. Far better than opinion polling, which remains a contested and imperfect science, real votes by real people in real ballot boxes can speak volumes about the political mood.
That’s why the parties seek to shape the expectations of what will happen on 4 May, and crucially what it means. Right now, the Tories are winning the expectations battle with party chairman Greg Hands’ ludicrous assertion that the Tories will lose 1000 seats.
Mr Hands took to the television studios at the start of the campaign to embed the ‘1000 seats’ narrative, and some journalists have taken it up with a combination of alacrity and laziness. Of course, this is a nonsense. This is purely so that whichever Tory ministers get the short straw on Friday 5 May can hit the airwaves with the line: ‘we were predicted to lose a thousand, but it was only 500. Rishi is a towering political colossus on track to win the election’. And for Labour spokespeople, the accusation will be: ‘you haven’t done as well as you wanted, have you? Is Starmer toast?’ In reality, the ‘1000 seats’ figure is fake news – about as authoritative as ‘£350m a week for the NHS’.
Labour will do well in these local elections. The Tories’ trusted strategy of swapping leaders and wiping the slate hasn’t worked. Sunak’s government is mired in sleaze, with the resignation of a Tory high-level donor, the BBC chair, and the former boss of Rishi Sunak at Goldman Sachs on Friday. Worse, this was all the same person, Richard Sharp. The public services are in chaos. The private sector is reeling from taxes, inflation, and skills shortages. Nothing works, everything is overpriced, broken, or late. No wonder this weekend, Labour has a healthy double-digit lead over the Tories.
But it will be hard to read too much into the results, which is why the parties are so keen to impose their interpretation early. The national polls mask myriad local factors. The ‘Red Wall’ is not homogenous, and the fine folks of Bolsover, Bassetlaw, and Burnley do not speak with one voice. Talk of a ‘Red Wall’ is just as meaningless as talk of ‘the North’ or ‘the South’, and just as patronising.
The elections reflect the dog’s breakfast of local governance in England: some councils such as Liverpool, Trafford, and Wolverhampton are electing the full council. Others just a third, such as: Manchester, Walsall, and Gateshead. Some are unitaries, some are districts. There are mayoral elections in Bedford, Leicester, Mansfield, and Middlesbrough, using first-past-the-post for the first time. Northern Ireland is going to the polls, but not Wales or Scotland. There are no elections in London. And of course the wild card is the insistence on photo ID at the polling station, which may depress turnout in some places.
Labour will do well to pick up a few hundred extra seats this year. There will be no dramatic breakthrough like in the 1990s, when Labour won big. In the locals in 1995, Blair’s Labour gained 1807 seats and Major’s Tories lost 2018. But then there was a different pattern of seats up for grabs, with far more vulnerable Tory seats in play. A straight switch of hundreds of council seats from Tory to Labour is as likely as an Oasis reunion.
A figure of say 400 gains would be a great night for Labour. That would show steady advance on the 2019 local elections, when Corbyn’s Labour lost 84 seats, and scored just 28% of the share of the vote (the same as May’s Tories). It would be a vast improvement on the state of the Labour Party since the general election later that year, when we crashed to the worst defeat since 1935. To gain ground in places such as Dover, Swindon, Milton Keynes, or Worcester will be far more significant than just staring at the results from the Red Wall. These are places Starmer must win at the general election to form a government.
For the Tories not to significantly improve on the performance of Theresa May in May 2019, which cost her job, would be a disaster for them. They should not be allowed to paint the loss of even a few hundred seats as a triumph for Conservatism. Tory spin must fail. By contrast, steady progress, not sweeping gains, will be the surest sign that Labour’s strategy is working and is what will give Rishi Sunak sleepless nights in his silken sheets.
If you enjoyed this Paul on Politics, why not read the previous installment: Victory within reach, but far from certain for Labour.