#LE2022 – The Great British Flop

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If you only got your news about 2022’s local elections from Keir Starmer and his supporters, you’d come away with the impression that they were a triumphant success for the Labour leader. The man himself proclaimed that they were a “massive turning point” for the party and called the results in London “fantastic”. Yet when you look more closely at the figures, it’s hard to label the results as anything other than mediocre – with one exception.

Context

In my pre-election article, I advised people to compare two consistent metrics: the number of seats gained/lost (as a share of total seats) and the opposition’s lead in projected vote share. This was because the number of seats contested in a given set of elections varies by region, nation and council; looking at consistent metrics gives us a fair way to evaluate Labour’s performance. So let’s begun by looking at these.

Overall benchmarks

Before the election, I identified two benchmarks that would constitute a “strong” result for Keir Starmer: gaining 300+ seats (5% of the total), and leading the Conservatives by 5pts (or more) in projected vote share.

Seats

In terms of seat gains, across Great Britain Labour gained 108 seats (1.6% of the seats up for election). This was a worse result, in percentage terms, than Corbyn’s 2018 result (+79 seats, or 1.8%).

Compared to the average opposition result (+4.7% of seats), Starmer’s 2022 result was poor. It was especially poor when you look at how Tony Blair and David Cameron performed in local elections (+7% of seats).

Projected vote share

Despite this poor / mediocre result in terms of seats, Starmer’s party achieved a strong score on the metric of projected vote share. Calculations by the BBC showed Labour on 35% (+6 since 2021) and the Conservatives on 30% (-6) with the Lib Dems on 19% (+2).

This lead of 5 percentage points for Labour is the party’s best performance since 2012, but is only slightly above-average for an opposition party. Leaders who went on to become PM (Blair and Cameron) managed average leads of 14pts. Not only that, but Labour’s projected vote share (35%) was the same as in 2018, with Starmer turning a tie into a 5pt lead only by virtue of the Tory vote falling – the Labour vote stood still.

Having said that, Starmer certainly exceeded my expectations on this metric and I would unambiguously grade this as a strong result. Combining the two metrics, therefore (which both matter equally in my view) leads me to grade the overall local election result as ‘mediocre’. Overall it wasn’t a disaster, nor was it a rousing success – it didn’t suggest a definitive Labour win in 2024, but nor did it indicate that the party is on course for another big defeat.

Beneath the headlines

Yet when you dig a little deeper beneath the headline numbers, the bad news for Labour starts to mount.

First, the vast majority of Labour’s seat gains in 2022 were confined to Wales. Of the party’s 108 net gains, a massive 66 of them (61%) were in Wales. It was an impressive result for Mark Drakeford and Welsh Labour, without a doubt, but it doesn’t tell us much about UK Labour’s fortunes ahead of the next general election: there are only 10 marginal constituencies in Wales that Labour could feasibly gain, and the party needs 80+ gains to win the next election.

Second, another 20 of Labour’s gains were in Scotland, where a proportional electoral system allowed the party to make small gains despite losing to the SNP by double digits and only increasing their vote share by a tiny amount (+1.3pts). And once again, Labour has few prospects for gaining Parliamentary seats in Scotland.

That leaves just 22 net gains in England, a mere 1% of the 2,000 English seats held by other parties prior to the elections. It is in England where the next general election will be decided, and it is in England where Labour needs to be gaining substantial ground. And that, quite simply, did not happen.

The result in England

Within England, Starmer’s Labour party achieved just 22 net gains out of 4,400 seats up for election – a mere 0.5% of the total. Considering that the Conservatives lost 338 seats across England, it’s pretty poor for Labour to pick up only 22 seats overall.

This was, as mentioned above, a worse result than Jeremy Corbyn’s 2018 local election performance (+79 seats in England, or 1.8% of the total). It’s also far, far below-average for an opposition party in England (+5.4%).

But even this lacklustre performance was itself confined to just two regions of England: the South and London. In the South of England, Labour gained 21 seats out of 1,100 – in London, they gained 11. But in the North, the party went backwards, losing 3 seats even as the Conservatives lost 71. In the Midlands the story was similar, with no more than 4 seats changing hands in any direction.

For Labour to go backwards in the North, compared to its performance under Jeremy Corbyn, is deeply concerning for the party. It needs to be making huge strides in order to recapture the infamous “Red Wall”, and that simply isn’t happening in local elections.

But even so, some might say, at least Labour still gained seats – that’s pretty good, right? And sure, gaining seats is preferable to losing them. But doing so on a reduced vote share, benefitting only slightly from a collapse in the Conservative vote, is not particularly promising when looking towards a general election. Labour needs to be gaining votes, not losing them.

But that’s exactly what happened in 2022. When you look at actual votes cast, in every English region the Labour vote actually fell relative to the previous set of local elections. In other words, Starmer got fewer votes than Corbyn did.

Conclusion

I’ll be taking a closer look at the results in specific areas and regions in future articles, but the chief takeaway from these elections is simple: they were a flop. Gaining just 22 seats in England, even as the Conservatives lost over 300, is a poor performance by any definition. Meanwhile, losing votes and seats in the North – at a time when the party desperately needs to gain them – is disastrous.

There was, however, one shining beacon of light for Labour: Wales. Under the leadership of left-leaning First Minister Mark Drakeford (who supported Corbyn for the Labour leadership), Welsh Labour gained 66 seats in the council elections. This was the second-best result for Labour since Welsh local government was reorganised.

Once again, as in 2021, Welsh Labour under Drakeford’s leadership has dramatically outperformed UK Labour. Once is perhaps a coincidence – twice indicates a pattern. As I wrote last year following the disastrous 2021 elections:

“Labour is having difficulty everywhere at present – South, North, Midlands, Scotland, etc. The only nation where Labour performed well in May was in Wales, where Corbynite Mark Drakeford led Welsh Labour to win an astounding 30 of 60 seats in the Welsh Parliament.

“Labour should learn from Drakeford’s example, and present a clear set of social democratic policies that will improve people’s lives. That’s how we’ll win.”

What more is there to say? What I said last year is still true, and Drakeford has once again led Welsh Labour to a triumphant victory even as Labour flopped in England. There’s a lesson there: if you show people that you are on their side, and present clear positions that improve people’s lives, they’re more likely to vote for you. If all you offer is platitudes, then you’re probably going to fail. That’s what happened in 2022, and it’s what will keep happening unless Starmer recognises that nobody wants Blairism anymore.

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