Italy – return of the Right

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Eleven years ago this November, Silvio Berlusconi’s final term as Italy’s Prime Minister ended. Having quit following the loss of his parliamentary majority, Berlusconi’s departure date also marks the last time that Italy had a solely right-wing government.

For ten of the last eleven years, the various Italian governments have incorporated the centre-left in some form or another, and none of the PMs since Berlusconi have been associated with a right-wing party. Though not excluded from government entirely, the Italian right has largely found itself constrained – aside from a brief coalition with populists in 2018-19, right-wing parties have either sat on the sidelines or had to govern alongside their traditional centre-left rivals.

In Italy’s snap 2022 election, however, that looks set to change. And this time, it won’t be the conservative Berlusconi who leads the right into power – it’ll be the far-right. Yet in the face of a far-right surge, the Italian centre-left is bitterly divided and faces a historic defeat.

Background

First, let’s understand how we got here. Earlier this year, Italy’s government collapsed. It is a sign of Italy’s recent instabilities that this was actually quite normal – this is the third government that has collapsed since the 2018 election.

The outgoing administration (a national unity government led by former EU Central Bank head Mario Draghi) was struggling to grapple with mounting crises, from the nation’s energy crisis to the war in Ukraine. Despite this, Draghi was actually a very popular leader. Now a collection of parties and alliances will compete to succeed him.

Italy is infamous for political instability and frequent changes in leadership, having had 18 Prime Ministers since 1990 (the UK has had 7). This is not because of proportional representation; Italy has had four electoral systems since 1990, and most have utilised first-past-the-post (FPTP) or majority bonuses to a greater or lesser extent. As a result, to avoid splitting the left/right vote, parties tend to form very broad alliances to contest elections.

The table below shows general elections in Italy since 1992, along with the electoral system used. There were 630 seats in the Chamber of Deputies 2022 – the number of seats has now been reduced to 400, meaning the results are not directly comparable. I have included an estimate for what the result would have been under the new electoral system.

The past few years have been particularly unstable, in part due to the rise of a ‘big tent’ populist movement called the Five Star Movement (M5S). In 2013, the M5S burst onto the national scene, winning 25% of the vote. By 2018, the M5S had entered a coalition government with the far-right ‘League’ party (Lega); this was dissolved in 2019, leading to a M5S-led coalition with the centre-left Democrats (PD). That government in turn collapsed in 2021, resulting in Draghi’s national unity administration. This, in turn, was dissolved in 2022 after the M5S quit the coalition.

Over that time, the M5S has substantially declined in popularity, from 32% (the largest individual party) in 2018 to just 10% today. Some of the party’s MPs split off to form new centrist parties; others have formed new populist movements. The M5S that remains is a shadow of its former self.

The 2022 snap election

All of which brings us to the 2022 election, and the various parties competing for power. There are ten major parties (ranging from right to left), but only four major political blocs. A guide to these parties and alliances is shown in the table below.

Thus, it is important to bear in mind the popularity of the alliances when looking at polls. The PD (polling around a quarter of the vote) is likely to top many polls, but the broad right-wing bloc overall has significantly more support across its various member parties.

The electoral system

Currently, Italy uses a hybrid electoral system known as the Rosatellum law. Just over a third of the seats are chosen through first-past-the-post (FPTP), which is why alliances are important: the various parties will unite behind one alliance candidate in a FPTP seat.

The rest of the seats are allocated proportionally (with a 3% threshold). This is why support for individual parties still matters, as even if they’re part of an alliance, a party could ultimately only win a handful of seats – solely from FPTP constituencies – if they happen to fall short of the threshold. And if they’re not part of an alliance, a party winning less than 3% will get no seats at all.

Note that is not a ‘balancing’ system like the electoral systems in Scotland, Germany and New Zealand (amongst others). The PR seats are elected independently of the FPTP seats, thus making it possible for an alliance to win the vast majority of FPTP seats and still win a proportionally representative share of list seats – likely giving them a majority in the Parliament overall.

What will the result be?

So, taking all this into account, what does the polling say? Well, the PD are neck and neck for first place in terms of political parties, but the right-wing alliance has a clear lead overall – they currently have more support than all other alliances and parties combined.

My seat estimate model indicates that this would produce an overwhelming landslide majority for the right in the Chamber of Deputies, with the far-right Brothers of Italy (FdL) party set to lead the government. It’s even possible that the FdL could have enough seats to form a two-party government with the far-right Lega party, without needing the support of Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right Forza Italia party.

In the Senate, the story is the same: indeed, the right would come within striking distance of a two-thirds super-majority, winning 91% of FPTP constituencies.

Divisions on the Left

The projected landslide for the Italian right is due in large part to divisions on the centre-left. As outlined above, parties tend to form very broad alliances to avoid splitting the vote in FPTP seats – in 2006, for instance, the two major alliances received 99.5% of the votes and encompassed dozens of parties on both sides.

Yet in this election, the right has united whilst the left remains divided. The M5S has been excluded from the main centre-left alliance, with the PD ruling out a pact. At the same time, the centrist Action and Italia Viva parties chose to split away from the main centre-left bloc and run independently, citing the PD’s alliance with the socialist left as the reason.

The upshot of all this is that the M5S and centrists will still win PR seats, but in FPTP seats they’ll have little to no impact beyond drawing votes away from the centre-left. As a result, the right-wing bloc is expected to sweep the FPTP seats – winning 86% of lower house constituencies and 91% of upper house constituencies.

It’s sadly too late for the various parties of the centre and left to unite, but if they had, they’d be neck-and-neck (polling 45.5%) with the right (47.1%). My seat estimate model suggests this would be enough for a small centre-left majority in both houses of Parliament – and whilst this coalition would have been unstable and ideologically diverse, I think we would all prefer it to a far-right government.

These divisions have also stalled the Left’s momentum. After the election was called, support for the centre-left began to rise until the alliance hit 31% in polls – but their support has since begun to dip again and looks unlikely to recover.

Conclusion

After a decade of instability, hung parliaments, grand coalitions, unity administrations and crises, the 2022 snap election looks (at first glance) likely to produce a stable government with a clear direction and a clear mandate. But there’s no guarantee of this.

Firstly, no individual party will have a majority; even the FdL is likely to win only 33.7% of the seats in the lower house, leaving it far short of overall control. There will still be coalition negotiations, requiring parties with different agendas and priorities to compromise and co-operate.

Secondly, even if the two far-right parties (FdL / Lega) are able to team up and form a solely far-right administration, their political agenda is hardly conducive to stability. The FdL opposes gay marriage, wants a zero-tolerance approach to undocumented migrants, and backs constitutional reforms including a directly-elected President. The League, meanwhile, is economically neo-liberal (backing policies like a flat tax) and socially conservative (they want crucifixes to be displayed in all public spaces). Italian politics will certainly have a clear direction, but it won’t be a stable one.

Finally, even Italian governments with clear majorities on paper tend not to last very long. The first Berlusconi government (1996-98) had a majority of 102 when elected, but only lasted two years; the Lega / M5S coalition (2018-19) enjoyed a majority of 74 seats but fell apart after just twelve months. The need to encompass a wide range of parties, across two houses of Parliament, can be a difficult thing for any government to manage regardless of the numbers on paper.

Ultimately, though, the outcome of this election looks set to be a landslide majority for the broad right and an embarrassing defeat for the centre-left and left. The biggest losers, though, are likely to be the Five Star Movement – after a decade of ascendancy and seemingly inexorable growth, the M5S finds itself facing a defeat of monumental proportions. Given that this election is happening because the M5S left Draghi’s coalition, it’s difficult to avoid the irony.

Who won Momentum’s NCG elections?

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The left-wing campaign group Momentum recently held elections to its National Co-ordinating Group (NCG), its governing council. Members elected 26 regional / national representatives and three Public Office Holder reps (chosen via an electoral college). In addition to these seats, the NCG incudes several representatives from affiliated groups. Two factions stood, with one winning an outright majority of seats. Yet there seems to be a great deal of disagreement over who won, and which faction has a mandate to lead Momentum.

Background

First, the background. In 2020, the “Forward Momentum” slate – pledging to change the organisation, expand internal democracy and place members at the centre – won a landslide victory under the first-past-the-post electoral system, winning 20 of the 20 directly-elected seats. They were opposed by Momentum Renewal, a slate associated with Momentum founder Jon Lansman, who only managed to win the 4 seats where voting was only open to elected officials.

After two years of massive change – in Momentum, Labour and the world at large – neither of these factions stood in the 2022 NCG elections. The major slates were instead:

-> “Your Momentum”: a slate of 20 candidates including four “Forward Momentum” incumbents, YM pledged to “build on the foundations” of the past two years. YM was also endorsed by 14 of the 20 people who ran for Forward Momentum in 2020.

-> “Momentum Organisers”: a slate of 23 candidates, none of whom stood in 2020. The Organisers slate argued that “Momentum has been rudderless, drifting into defeat after defeat” for the past two years, pledging to “put Momentum back on a winning path”. Their endorsements include 8 of the 24 people who ran for Momentum Organisers in 2020. For the sake of full disclosure: I endorsed them too.

The electoral system

In the 2020 election, 20 NCG reps were elected in five regions using first-past-the-post. In addition, there were four Public Office holder reps, with voting open only to elected officials. For the 2022 contest, the electoral system changed substantially.

There are now 26 regional and national reps, elected by the Single Transferable Vote (STV) in six regions and the two nations of Scotland and Wales (for a total of eight constituencies). There are also three Public Officer holder reps, chosen via an electoral college of 66% elected officials, 33% members.

The results

Unsurprisingly, with such a dramatic change in electoral system the results were also dramatically different from 2020. Two years ago, Forward Momentum swept all 20 of the seats elected solely by members; this year, the 26 regional and national reps were split evenly between Your Momentum (13) and Momentum Organisers (13). When the three Public Officer holder reps were allocated, the Momentum Organisers faction emerged with an overall majority (15 seats) leaving Your Momentum in the minority (14 seats). Together with affiliated reps, this has apparently proven to be enough for control of the NCG, as the newly elected co-Chairs of Momentum are both on the Organisers slate.

The controversy

Momentum Organisers described the result as “a mandate to lead” for their slate, but Your Momentum described the result as evenly split and called for a 50-50 division of leadership roles. The Organisers slate rejected this proposal, and appear to have won enough NCG members around to their perspective – as said above, the new co-Chairs are from their slate. So who’s correct? Was it a tie, or did the Organisers slate win a clear victory?

The popular vote

There are a variety of numbers being quoted at the moment, so I’ve delved into the results released by Momentum to establish a single clear set of figures for the two slates.

The biggest issue causing confusion is the Public Office holders section. Momentum only released the combined figures, so we don’t know how ordinary members (33% of votes) voted as compared to elected officials (66% of votes). Additionally, every member who voted in that section could also vote in the regional / national rep section – so including those vote totals in an overall figure simply duplicates the figures.

Therefore, I have aggregated the results from each region / nation into a UK-wide popular vote total (shown in the graphic below). I have shown both the first preference totals, and the results once all preferences were allocated.

As you can see, Momentum Organisers won an outright majority (over 50%) of the popular vote by both measures (first and final preferences), as well as in the Public Office holder section. And ultimately, they won a majority of elected seats. Not only that, there was a 14.5% swing to the opposition.

Having said that, Your Momentum is correct to say that the seats elected solely by members were split evenly (13-13) and the result was quite regionally split. The Organisers slate won the South of England and the North by decisive margins, but Your Momentum triumphed overwhelmingly in the Midlands and won slightly in Wales and in the Yorkshire / Northern Ireland / International region (in Scotland, Your Momentum won unopposed).

This is a change from 2020, when Forward Momentum won a clear majority of votes in every constituency.

Conclusion

As some may know, I backed the Momentum Organisers slate. Therefore I would encourage readers to review the numbers here, and those released by Momentum, to form their own opinions. But if I were to offer my own view, I would say this: Momentum Organisers won an absolute majority of the popular vote, and emerged with an outright majority of elected seats. They laid out a clear plan for Momentum going forward, and I think they should be given the chance to implement it.

That does not mean, however, that Your Momentum should be side-lined. Not only did they win significant victories in Wales, Scotland and the Midlands, but they are a vital part of Momentum and won nearly half the votes in the contest. Respecting a faction’s victory in an internal election is important, but so is respecting the defeated faction’s contribution to the organisation and ensuring that Momentum moves forward as a united front.

Hopefully, with the elections and leadership changes behind them, Momentum can move past these divisions and build an organisation capable of doing what we all hope they can do: defeating the Labour Right and winning power in the Labour Party.

Tower Hamlets: how did Aspire win?

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In May 2022, the Labour Party found its gains in London (like Barnet) hampered by losses in previously strong areas. Some of these losses were to their traditional rival, the Conservatives; but in the London borough of Tower Hamlets, Labour lost power to a relative newcomer to the London political scene. This was the left-wing Aspire Party, led by former Mayor Lutfur Rahman.

In the last Tower Hamlets election (in 2018), Labour won nearly every seat on the council and the directly-elected Mayor. Aspire, meanwhile, finished third in the Mayoral election and won no seats on the council at all. Just four years later, Aspire has experienced a remarkable reversal of fortunes: they now hold an overall majority on the council and the post of Mayor, leaving Labour watching from the sidelines. The victory was total and unambiguous, and leaves Aspire as the first party outside the big three to win a majority in a London borough since the 32 boroughs were created in the 1960s.

There has been very little analysis of how Aspire was swept into power, and without any local polling that’s perhaps understandable. But the data that is available indicates that this political earthquake in Labour’s heartland was driven by Muslim voters, BAME voters and renters – all groups traditionally loyal to Labour, but who seem to have thrown their support to Rahman and his party.

What happened?

In short, Aspire won – and their victory was total and complete. They won the Mayoralty by a clear margin in both rounds, with the Aspire vote rising by a stunning 28,000 votes (+32.7pts).

But Aspire also triumphed in a more difficult election: the borough council election, which was conducted in 20 wards under first-past-the-post (FPTP), with each ward electing between one and three councillors. In terms of the popular vote, Aspire increased their vote share by 20pts and won by a small margin.

As is so often the case with FPTP elections, the swing in terms of seats was even more dramatic. Aspire won no seats in 2018; this time, they won 24 (due to by-elections wins, they held two prior to the election). Labour, meanwhile, went from holding 93% of the seats to losing power entirely.

The swings were quite remarkable; in the Mayoral contest, Rahman increased his party’s vote share by 33 percentage points, recording a 24pt swing from Labour to Aspire. In the council election, Aspire increased their vote share by 20pts and gained 24 seats – more than Labour gained in the whole of England (+22).

In a symbolic victory, Aspire won the ward of Lansbury in a landslide, taking all three available seats and winning 47% of the vote. Lansbury is named after long-time East London Labour MP, George Lansbury, who led the party from 1932-1935.  Labour has won the ward named after their former Leader in every election since 1994; they now hold no seats in the ward at all, for the first time in 28 years.

How did they win?

Including Lansbury, Aspire won the most votes in 11 of Tower Hamlets’ 20 wards. As we have census data for all of the wards, we can look at the demographics of Aspire’s strongest areas. And the trend is clear: the more people in a ward who identified as BAME, the higher Aspire’s share of the vote.

Aspire performed worst in wards with a very low population of BAME residents, and performed best in wards with a high population of BAME residents. In Poplar ward (67% BAME), Aspire won an absolute majority of the vote; in St Katharine’s & Wapping ward (29% BAME), the party won just 13% of the vote.

When you plot this data on a ward-by-ward map, the trend is even clearer. And it’s not just BAME people who appear to have swung to Aspire. Of the 10 wards where more than 40% of the population are Muslim, Aspire triumphed in 7 of them; in Shadwell ward, where 55% of residents identify with the Muslim faith (the most of any ward), Aspire won both seats with 42% of the vote (+20pts). The trend is very clear.

But there was another element to the Aspire surge: housing. In areas with high numbers of renters, Aspire did best; in areas with significant home ownership, they did poorly. In St Katharine’s & Wapping (53% renters) they got just 13%; in Bromley North (81% renters) they got 43%. In the two strongest Aspire wards, nearly 8 in 10 households rent.

Some of this success may be attributed to Aspire’s left-leaning housing policies. The party has pledged (amongst other policies) to:

  • Build at least 4,000 social homes over the next four years;
  • Work with the local renters’ union;
  • Seize long term empty properties and convert them into social housing; and
  • Increase council tax to landlords who leave homes empty.

Conclusion

Aspire is not the first localist political party to win council elections in the UK, nor will it be the last. Residents’ Associations and independents have a long history of success in local government – the Mansfield Independent Forum, for instance, held a majority on the council and the directly-elected Mayor between 2007 and 2011. But what is almost entirely unique is that Aspire ran on an unashamedly left-leaning platform, and won an absolute majority of seats under first-past-the-post. Even the more widely successful Greens have not managed that (all of the councils they’ve led have been as minority administrations). Not only that, but Rahman’s movement is the first party outside the big three to win a majority on a London council since Greater London was established in the 1960s.

With independent left groupings in Liverpool (Liverpool Community Independents) and Lancaster (Eco-Socialist Independents) being established, and new small left parties like Breakthrough attracting defectors from Labour, there is a lot for the left to learn from what Aspire achieved in Tower Hamlets.

And with a left-wing movement beating Labour by uniting Muslim voters, BAME people and renters, Keir Starmer should arguably be concerned. Because if Labour can lose power to the left in a borough where Labour won a super-majority of the vote (68%) in 2019, places like Liverpool and Bristol might not be as safe for Labour as they seem…

#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.

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.

Northern Irish devolved elections: a summary

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In the 2017 Northern Ireland Assembly election, parties that support maintaining the Union between Northern Ireland and the UK won less than 50% of the seats for the first time ever. Recent polls now suggest that the nationalist Sinn Féin party will win the most seats in the next Assembly election, due to be held in 2022. This would not change the constitutional status of the region, but it is an astonishing shift given the area’s history: in 1969, unionist parties won 73% of the vote and 79% of the seats in the region’s devolved legislature.

To appreciate just how remarkable these shifts are, it is worth looking back at previous elections in Northern Ireland.

Historical context

As some of you may know, the Northern Ireland Assembly was established in the late 1990s after several failed attempts (in 1973, 1975 and 1982). What fewer may know is that Northern Ireland had its own independent legislature – the Parliament of Northern Ireland – prior to its abolition in 1973.

Established by the UK Parliament just before the partition of Ireland, the Parliament of Northern Ireland comprised a directly-elected House of Commons and an indirectly elected Senate, and had almost total legislative power over the province (excluding foreign policy, some taxes and some UK-wide services).

From the first election in 1921 until the Parliament’s abolition in 1973, the conservative Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) held an uninterrupted landslide majority in both Houses of Parliament, winning over 60% of Commons seats in every single election. Originally elected by the proportional Single Transferable Vote (STV) system, it was elected by first-past-the-post (FPTP) from 1929 onward.

Major political parties

Despite the Liberal and Conservative parties competing in Ireland before the 1920s, following the partition of Ireland the UK parties ceased to compete in Northern Ireland. Parties specific to the region emerged, largely characterised by their position on Irish unification. The major political parties in Northern Ireland varied – from the 1920s until the 1960s only three major parties consistently won multiple seats, but following the abolition of the Northern Ireland Parliament two of these parties declined and several new parties emerged.

1921-1973

  • Ulster Unionists (UUP): centre-right unionists aligned with the UK Tories.
  • Nationalists: remnants of the old Irish Parliamentary Party in Northern Ireland, who supported the unification of Ireland. The Nationalists initially boycotted the Parliament; its MPs took their seats periodically after 1925.
  • Northern Ireland Labour: a centre-left party (not linked to the UK or Irish Labour parties) that supported the union but focused on labour issues.

1973-present

  • Ulster Unionists (UUP): centre-right unionists.
  • Social Democratic and Labour (SDLP): centre-left nationalists.
  • Democratic Unionists (DUP): right-wing unionists.
  • Alliance: centrist party that takes a neutral position on the union.
  • Sinn Féin: left-wing nationalists.
  • Vanguard Progressive Unionist (until 1978): right-wing unionists.

In addition to these major parties, independent unionist candidates and other small parties have frequently been elected in small numbers.

Analysing results

Historical elections in Northern Ireland are more difficult to analyse than one might expect. The reason for this is that, due to the UUP’s overwhelming support in Northern Ireland, elections to the Northern Ireland House of Commons were not widely contested. In many seats (sometimes over 50% of seats!) only one candidate was nominated, and was elected without any votes being cast.

These sorts of unopposed elections used to be common in mainland Britain, as explained in my previous article. But in Northern Ireland, unopposed elections continued to be common – even, arguably, the norm – all the way up until the early 1970s.

As a result, the popular vote in these elections does not reflect the actual balance of political opinion in Northern Ireland. In 1933, for instance, the UUP received just 44% of the popular vote – but 27 of the party’s 36 MPs were elected without a contest, meaning that around 200,000 votes that would have gone to the UUP were simply never cast, which (taking into account other uncontested seats) would have brought their total up to 67%. I have therefore provided vote estimates for these uncontested seats, to better illustrate the actual state of politics in Northern Ireland at the time. My methodology is explained here.

Northern Ireland House of Commons (1921-1969)

The table below lists elections to the Northern Ireland House of Commons. The first two elections were conducted under STV; all future elections used FPTP. Parties required only a simple majority of MPs in order to govern.

Note: due to the enormous number of uncontested seats, the popular vote totals from 1925 onwards are my estimates based on the average vote of successful candidates in contested seats.

Northern Ireland devolved assemblies (1973-1996)

Following the abolition of the Northern Ireland Parliament, the UK government sought to create various devolved Assemblies and conventions between the 1970s and 1990s. The 1973, 1975 and 1982 assemblies failed; the 1996 forum ultimately succeeded and the first election to the modern Northern Ireland Assembly was held in 1998.

The first three elections used STV, whilst the 1996 election used a proportional party list system, with 2 top-up seats allocated to the top ten parties.

Northern Ireland Assembly (1998-present)

The current Northern Ireland Assembly held its first election in 1998, and although disagreements between the parties have seen the Assembly suspended multiple times (most recently between 2017 and 2020), the institution still exists today.

To facilitate the peace process, the government is composed of (at minimum) the major unionist party and the major nationalist party – currently the DUP (unionist) and Sinn Fein (nationalist). The number of seats in the executive is allocated proportionally according to a party’s share of first preference votes.

All of these elections used STV.

Uncontested elections in the UK

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One of my many statistical hobbies is compiling and analysing UK election results from before WW2. I find it fascinating how the British party system changed so dramatically and quickly between 1906 (the last Liberal majority) and 1945 (the first Labour majority).

Yet looking at old elections in the UK can be confusing. Take, for instance, the general election of 1895. The Conservatives defeated the Liberals by a margin of just 3.7pts in the popular vote, yet won a landslide majority of 152 seats. Several years later, in 1910, the Tories won by 3.3pts… and didn’t even win the most seats. How?

A big part of the reason for this is that, prior to 1918, a significant number of seats in UK elections were not contested. In other words, only one person was nominated for the constituency; no election was held, and that single person won by default. This has an enormous impact on the national popular vote. In 1895, for instance, 132 of the 411 Tory MPs were elected unopposed – versus just 11 unopposed Liberal MPs. This means that the national popular vote did not take into account over 500,000 voters who would have backed the Tories in those uncontested seats.

So, to correct this, I’ve put together some estimates for these uncontested seats. There are a number of ways to calculate this, but I’ve chosen to use the following formula:

-> Calculate average vote of the party in contested seats

-> Multiply average vote by number of uncontested seats

-> Add this total to the contested total

In the case of 1895, this produces the following outcome.

As you can see, this adjustment expands the Tory popular vote lead to a far more realistic size (14pts) given the scale of their majority. It also provides us with a far more realistic Irish Nationalist vote (5%), as the vast majority of their MPs were elected unopposed.

The tables below show all elections from 1885-2019 with the above adjustment made for uncontested seats. Note that I categorise the National Liberals and Ulster Unionists as separate parties from the Conservatives, as they were distinct organisations even if they took the Tory whip in Westminster – just as the SDLP today is a separate party that happens to take the Labour whip in Westminster.

Labour isn’t surging in the South

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In the aftermath of Labour’s 2021 local election wipe-out, in which Keir Starmer recorded the worst result for a new opposition leader in over 50 years, lots of narratives have emerged that attempt to downplay or put a positive spin on the disastrous results.

One of the most popular narratives is that, even though it inarguably went backwards in the North of England, Labour is moving forwards in the South and winning in ‘Blue Wall’ areas (‘Blue Wall’ being as undefined and vague a term as ‘Red Wall’, if not vaguer). This was driven by the over-the-top attention given to a handful of Labour gains in council wards in areas like Chipping Norton.

But when you look at all the local election results in May, Labour performed worse in the South than it did in the North – and even those areas where it did well (such as the two Mayoral elections) aren’t as impressive as they first appear.

Beyond Chipping Norton

One of the most widely retweeted election results in May was the result in the Oxfordshire ward of Chipping Norton, where Labour narrowly gain a long-time Conservative seat. Pro-Starmer and centrist commentators hailed this as the prelude to the collapse of the ‘Blue Wall’, a thesis which was given weight by the Conservatives’ astonishing defeat in the Chesham and Amersham by-election.

Yet I would argue that the excitement generated by the Chipping Norton result is misplaced. It tells us no more about the political landscape of Southern England than the result in Sewell ward does (where the Greens won for the first time since 2009). We can, however, learn from the overall result across Southern England.

In May 2021, 4.8 million voters cast a ballot in the South, with 2,400 councillors elected. Of these, the Conservatives won 1,333 (+15), the Lib Dems 413 (+15), Labour 365 (-88) and the Greens 98 (+55). Independent candidates, Residents’ Associations and smaller parties won the remaining 175 seats (+9).

These results may seem surprising. The popular narrative amongst many centrists is that Labour made significant gains in the South in May 2021, and that the Tories are collapsing. But as the results show, the already sizeable Tory vote held up, whilst Labour lost seats and is now in third place behind the Liberal Democrats. In other words, Labour has gone backwards in the South compared to its performance under Jeremy Corbyn.

Having said that, it’s inarguable that these gains by the Conservatives in the South were relatively small, especially compared to the 113 gains they made in the North and the 106 gains they made in the Midlands.

But Labour (-88) did not benefit from this Tory under-performance. Instead, Starmer’s party lost a higher percentage of their seats in the South than they did in the North – for instance, they lost 7% of their seats in the North West but lost 28% of their seats in the South West.

In terms of councils, Labour now has a majority on just 9 of the 73 Southern councils that were up for election in May – a net loss of three councils compared to the previous elections, whilst the Conservatives control 39 (+1). Labour gained absolutely no councils in the South in May 2021. Indeed, it barely has more than the Liberal Democrats.

Signs of hope?

The most positive results that Labour can point to in the South (outside of London) are the two Metro Mayoral elections held in the West of England and in Cambridgeshire. Labour won both, but their results in both were not necessarily as impressive as they first appear.

The West of England result was good: Labour won the most first preferences, with the Labour vote rising by 11pts compared to May 2017.

In addition to winning Bristol, the party won 32% (+17) in Bath & North East Somerset – an impressive showing for Starmer’s party, which won just 19% there in 2019 and holds no seats in the area.

Having said that, the West of England region has been trending towards Labour since the 2017 general election, as the graph below indicates.

So whilst the West of England Mayoral election was a positive result, the region has been trending towards Labour since the 2015 general election – the party lost it in 2015 by a 9pt margin, but won it by a 3pt margin in 2017. This trend was particularly clear in Bristol, where Labour won just 29% of the popular vote in the May 2017 mayoral election but went on to win 60% in the June 2017 general election (and 54% in 2019).

The same cannot be said of Cambridgeshire, however, which makes the result there even more interesting.

In the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough region, Labour’s candidate (Dr Nik Johnson) won the election – but he did not win the most first preferences. Instead, the Conservative candidate outpolled Johnson by 41% (+3) to 33% (+14), with Johnson winning in the second round after getting the vast majority of second preferences from Lib Dem voters.

This doesn’t change the fact that Labour won, but it does matter for other elections: this second preference system will be abolished before the next Mayoral election, and in any event UK Parliament elections don’t use it anyway.

As a result, whilst Labour’s victory in Cambridgeshire was brilliant, the breakdown of first preference votes is not particularly encouraging for future elections. Across the six local authorities, Labour’s vote increased – often substantially – but the party only won the most first preferences within one local authority (Cambridge). The Lib Dems won in one area (South Cambridgeshire), whilst the Tories won the other four areas. This suggests that prospects for Labour gains in Parliamentary elections in the area are not promising.

Conclusion

So what can we learn from all this data? Well, firstly, Labour is not surging in the South. It actually went backwards in the South in May, in many areas losing worse than it did in the North and Midlands. And even the two positive results (the Mayoral elections) reflected long-term trends (in the West of England) and the effect of the Supplementary Vote system (in Cambridgeshire).

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.

The Burnham Effect

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In May 2021, Labour experienced the worst council election defeat for a new opposition leader in at least 40 years. But in the regional Mayoral elections in England, the party had a relatively good night. Although it fell short in the West Midlands and lost hugely to a popular incumbent in Tees Valley, the party gained two Mayors from the Tories in Southern England, and the two incumbent Labour Mayors in Liverpool and Greater Manchester were re-elected by a huge margin.

It is these latter two elections that I want to focus on, because both Andy Burnham (Greater Manchester) and Steve Rotherham (Liverpool City Region) massively outperformed the Labour Party in their regions in May, often winning in council areas that Labour lost or barely won on that same day. As Labour seeks to rebuild its support across England in the aftermath of the 2019 election, these results suggest that it should be looking to its regional Mayors for advice.

Ticket splitting

First off, a little background. In May, in part due to elections being delayed from 2020, many areas held multiple elections on the same day. In some cases, thousands of voters backed different parties in different elections. In the West Midlands, for instance, Labour lost the Mayoral election (winning 40%) but won the PCC election (winning 46%).

In some areas, voters’ partisanship was remarkably consistent. In the city of Norwich, for instance, the Conservatives won 22-23% of the vote in all three elections (PCC, County Council and City Council). Labour also performed similarly consistently (42-45%).

In other words, there is no guarantee that voters will back the same parties in different elections. And whilst this trend resulted in some Labour defeats (particularly in the West Midlands) it also resulted in huge Labour victories.

Liverpool

The city of Liverpool itself was largely not a success story for Labour in 2021, with the party losing 14pts in the city Mayoral vote and 7pts in the city council vote. Across the Liverpool City Region, the party won just 46% of the vote in the local council elections.

But even as his party struggled in Liverpool, incumbent Labour Mayor Steve Rotherham swept to a landslide victory, winning 58% of the vote across the region.

Rotherham’s huge victory was driven in part by massively outperforming Labour in safe Labour areas (he won 66% in the city of Liverpool, compared to Labour’s 51%) but also by winning hugely in areas that are less safe for Labour. Most notably, in Wirral (home to the marginal Parliamentary seat of Wirral West), Labour won just 39.5% of the vote in the council elections – Rotherham, however, won 52%.

Greater Manchester

But Rotherham’s success, whilst impressive, seems unimpressive when one looks at Andy Burnham’s landslide victory in Greater Manchester. Labour won just 46.2% of the vote across Greater Manchester in the local elections, but Andy Burnham won a stunning 67.3% of the vote, reportedly winning every single ward.

How did he do it? Labour is nowhere near that popular across Greater Manchester, as the council elections showed. Burnham’s sizeable victory was, like Rotherham’s, partly down to piling up votes in strongly Labour areas. In the city of Manchester, Burnham won 77% of the vote, compared to Labour’s 65%; in Wigan, Burnham won 70% to Labour’s 51%.

But Burnham also won enormously in areas that were more marginal, or even voted Conservative, in May. In Bolton, the Conservatives won the most votes in the council elections by a 3pt margin (38% to 35%). But Burnham won 64% of the vote within Bolton, defeating the Tory candidate by a 39pt margin.

In Bury, Labour barely defeated the Tories in the council election (41% to 40%). Burnham, however, won by a 38pt margin within Bury.

The most astonishing example of ticket splitting, however, was in Stockport. In the council elections, Labour won just 32% of the vote to the Lib Dems’ 31%.

Yet Burnham won 66% of the vote within Stockport, compared to the LDs’ 6%. Even as his party barely outpolled the Lib Dems in the council election, Burnham defeated them by a margin of nearly 60 percentage points.

These enormous differences in how people voted are important because they show how Burnham’s victory went beyond simply being a Labour candidate in a Labour area. Even as Labour struggled in Greater Manchester running on a UK-wide message of having no policies, Andy Burnham won landslide victories in areas that Starmer lost by promising to bring buses into public control.

Voters are more complicated than centrists assume. The same voter can, on the same day, back a Tory councillor and a Labour Mayor who favours public ownership of transport. Just because someone votes Tory, that doesn’t mean they are totally opposed to left-wing policies. Often voters just want a leader who stands for something and will work to change their lives for the better.

Burnham offered voters something, and they backed him in enormous numbers. Starmer is currently offering voters absolutely nothing, and the outcome in May was a disastrous defeat.

Labour will not win unless it offers voters a vision and a set of policies that they want. If Starmer is incapable of doing this, he should stand aside for somebody who is.