Starmer’s biggest test

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Keir Starmer must be feeling pretty confident right now. For the first time since mid-2019, his party has a consistently large lead in the polls (6pts on average); his Best PM polling is good (3pts ahead of the PM), his approval ratings aren’t disastrous (net rating of -11), and more importantly his main opponent (Boris Johnson) is massively unpopular. After a mediocre start to his leadership, which included losing hundreds of council seats, these data points certainly point to a strong performance by Labour in the next general election.

But we are now less than a week out from the biggest test Keir Starmer has faced: the 2022 local elections. Just under 7,000 councillors on 200 councils are up for election, including every local authority in London, Wales, and Scotland – key areas where Labour must perform well to be competitive in 2024’s general election. Given Starmer’s advantage in polls, one would expect Labour to perform exceptionally well. But will they? And what is the benchmark against which success should be measured?

Background

In total, approximately 6,900 council seats will be contested in May. Just over half of these were last up for election in 2018. At the time, Labour was slightly behind the Conservatives in opinion polls. A third of the seats, meanwhile, were last up for election in May 2017; at the time, Labour was behind by double digits. Right now, Labour is ahead by 6pts.

(Click here to see previous results in: London, England outside London, Wales and Scotland)

Labour goes into the 2022 elections with a massive seat lead, having won 2,995 seats to the Conservatives’ 1,867 the last time these seats were contested.

Not only that, but there’s been a big swing to Labour in polls since these seats were last contested in 2017 and 2018. Thus – barring a particularly poor result – they will almost certainly emerge with the most seats in May. This is, in part, due to the areas being contested; nearly 45 per cent of the seats are in London and Wales, two areas where Labour performed strongly in 2017/18. The more strongly Tory areas were largely contested in May 2021.

Benchmarks for success

Except specifically in London and the devolved nations (where every council is being contested), the total tally of seats won will thus not be a particularly informative guide to the popularity of the two major parties. Rather, we should look at two measures that allow us to compare Starmer’s performance to previous contests:

  • Net change in seats for each party
  • Labour’s lead over the government in estimated national vote share

The infographic below shows the net % change in seats for the main opposition party in local elections.

As we can see above, opposition parties tend to perform very well in local elections – even if they ultimately lose general elections. Of the 30 local elections between 1991 and 2021, opposition parties gained seats in 23 of those years; on average, the opposition increased their share of total seats by +5%. Looking only at the two opposition leaders who went on to become Prime Minister (Blair and Cameron), the figure was +7%.

Having said that, the best performances by opposition leaders over the past three decades were in 2012, when Ed Miliband gained 823 seats (+17%), and 2000 – when William Hague gained 594 seats (+16.97%). Neither became PM.

The approximate benchmark for success in terms of seats gained is thus:

  • ❌ Net loss of seats: disastrous
  • ❌ +100 gains or less = poor
  • ➖ +200 gains (Less than +5%) = mediocre
  • ✅ +300 seats (+5%) = strong
  • ✅ +500 seats (+7%) = excellent
  • ✅ +700 seats (+10%) = exceptional

When it comes to projected vote share (‘National Equivalent Share of the Vote’), the average opposition lead in 1991-2021 was 4.4 percentage points. Looking only at Blair and Cameron, the average was 14.4pts.

The best performance by an opposition leader in the last 30 years was Tony Blair in 1995, who achieved a 21pt lead over the Conservatives. The second best was David Cameron in 2008, who led Labour by 19pts. Both became PM within two years.

The approximate benchmark for success in terms of projected vote share is thus:

  • ❌ Behind government: disastrous
  • ❌ Lead of less than 4pts = poor
  • ➖ Lead of 4pts = mediocre
  • ✅ Lead of 5-10pts = strong
  • ✅ Lead of 10pts = excellent
  • ✅ Lead of more than 10pts = exceptional

So, with these benchmarks established, which councils should we be keeping an eye on?

Key councils to watch in England and Wales

The table below shows the present composition of all 166 councils that are up for election in England and Wales, which both use first-past-the-post to elect local councils. Two new councils (Cumberland and Westmorland & Furness) will also be contested.

In terms of which councils are the most marginal, a majority (85) are safely in majority control, with one party holding over 60% of seats; these are very unlikely to change hands. Another 18 councils are under no overall control, but no single party has enough seats to win control in May.

There are thus 63 ‘marginal’ councils which we should focus on. Of these, 41 are controlled by a single party with a relatively small majority, and might switch hands in May. A total of 22 councils, meanwhile, are under no overall control but could possibly see one party win a majority in May. These are shown in the table below.

Many thanks to Open Council Data for compiling this data.

If I was to pick five in particular to watch, they would be:

  • Merthyr Tydfil (Labour 2 seats short of a majority)
  • Sheffield (Labour 3 seats short of a majority)
  • Peterborough (Tories 3 seats short of a majority)
  • Newcastle-under-Lyme (Tory majority of 2 seats)
  • Wandsworth (Tory majority of 4 seats)

Although they are not marginal councils, I’ll also be watching the Mayoral elections in Tower Hamlets and Croydon as the outcomes are uncertain.  I’ll also be watching the results in Norwich, Solihull, Lambeth and Wirral – these are all areas where the Greens have performed strongly in recent elections.

Scotland

The reason I’ve included Scotland in its own section is, quite simply, the voting system. Scottish councils are elected using the Single Transferable Vote (STV), a form of proportional representation. As a result, none of the 32 councils are controlled by a single party, nor are they likely to be; coalitions are the norm. The present composition of each council is shown on the map below, not including Orkney and Shetland (where every councillor except one is an independent).

Polls indicate that the SNP is likely to win a clear victory, but what is uncertain is who will finish second overall. If Scottish Labour manages to outpoll the Tories in votes and/or seats, it’ll be very notable; they haven’t done this in a Scottish election since 2015.  The performance of the left-wing Scottish Greens will also be interesting; the Greens have historically performed poorly in council elections, but they increased their support significantly in the 2021 Scottish Parliament elections and continue to poll well.

As no council is likely to switch to majority control, and post-election leadership will depend upon coalition negotiations, the overall result will tell us more than any one particular council (in my opinion).

But I will be watching the result in the Scottish Borders (where the Tories fell just 2 seats short of a majority in 2017) and in Dundee (where the SNP fell 2 seats short of victory).

I recommend checking out the excellent coverage by Ballot Box Scotland for more detailed Scottish analysis.

Predictions

Now we come to the part many will have been waiting for: what do I expect to happen?

There are indications that Labour is on course for an exceptional performance; seat estimates from Find Out Now and Electoral Calculus suggest Starmer’s party is set to gain 835 seats in England and Wales. Combined with a probable gain of around 20 seats in Scotland, this would see Labour gain close to 855 seats overall (+13% of seats). This would be the best performance by Labour (in percentage terms) since 2012.

Other local election polls support this. Poll averages in London suggests that Labour will win 48% of the vote, up 4pts from 2018. I estimate that this would lead to a Labour landslide in the city, with Starmer’s party winning 24 of the 32 councils. My estimate for each council is shown in the map below – click on each council to see a breakdown of seats.

At the same time, Labour’s poll lead (+6 as of this article) remains consistently strong. And aside from the unusual circumstances of May 2019 (when the two major parties were both averaging less than 30% in polls), a big poll lead generally guarantees a strong local election performance. In May 2012, for instance, Ed Miliband led in the polls by 11pts; that month, he gained over 800 council seats.

We are currently in a political context in which the incumbent government is very unpopular, especially the Prime Minister and Chancellor. Although voters are not particularly enthusiastic about the opposition, in low-turnout elections (which local contests almost always are), all Labour will need is for many Tory voters to simply stay home. Polls indicate a high number of Tory voters have drifted into apathy, even if they haven’t switched to Labour; whilst this might not help Labour much in 2024, it will do them wonders in local elections where a lower-than-normal Tory turnout could lose Johnson’s party hundreds of council seats.

In short: the electorate don’t particularly mind Labour, they really dislike the Tories, Tory voters are apathetic, voters are facing a massive cost of living crisis and Labour has a big poll lead. All of these factors together lead me to believe that Labour is – at the absolute minimum – on course for a strong local election performance (+300 seats), and could quite easily achieve an excellent performance (+500).

Even if I remain sceptical of Labour’s chances of winning in 2024, I would be absolutely astounded if these local elections produce anything other than a Labour landslide.

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