UK polling round-up, 2022

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It’s been a whirlwind year in British politics. At the start of 2022, the Conservatives seemed to be clawing their way back from the polling collapse triggered by the Partygate scandal, reducing Keir Starmer’s lead from 8pts in January to 4pts in March. Boris Johnson’s approval rating was creeping back up, the public were lukewarm about Starmer, and the Tories had a ready-made popular successor in Rishi Sunak if Johnson ultimately had to quit. The future seemed hopeful for the party.

Then it all unravelled. Johnson and Rishi Sunak were fined, the government’s budget was received astoundingly poorly (denting Sunak’s once-phenomenal popularity) and the Tories experienced disastrous local and by-election results. Enough was enough. Tory MPs dumped Johnson, but party members elevated Liz Truss to No 10, beating a now-unpopular Sunak. Within weeks she was gone, after triggering the greatest Tory poll meltdown since the 1990s. Sunak, swooping in unopposed, took over. The chaos ended.

But as we finish the year, Sunak’s mediocre approval ratings (though vastly superior to those of Truss) have not translated into good polling for the Tories. And prospects for another Tory victory are slim. So let’s look at the numbers from this year and see what effect all these events have had.

GB voting intention (and seat estimates)

As 2022 began, prospects for Labour looked promising – if not exceptional. The party’s average lead over the Conservatives was 8pts, a big swing since 2019 but still far short of the lead needed for an overall majority. What’s more, it began to melt away as quickly as the winter snow – by March the party led by only 4pts (39% to 35%). This, again, was far short of what was needed for a majority.

Then the fines for Johnson and Sunak happened, the pair introduced an unpopular budget, and Johnson led the Tories to terrible local election results. From then on, Labour’s lead held firm and even rose to 9pts following the resignation of Johnson. Then came Truss’s election, her mini-budget, and all the chaos surrounding both events. Labour’s lead quickly leapt up, reaching an average of 28pts – with the party’s support rising to an absolute majority (52%) of voters.

This put Labour decisively in majority territory, with polls in October pointing to a mega-landslide Labour majority, with Labour on 535 seats and the Tories on just 13 seats (under current boundaries).

Sunak’s election dampened Labour’s surge slightly, but the party still led by 20pts in December – enough to give Starmer a landslide majority of 300 seats under the new Parliamentary constituency boundaries. The map below (excluding Orkney and Shetland) shows what this would like if repeated at an election.

Best Prime Minister

But despite Labour’s enduring big lead over the Conservatives in polls, Sunak remains neck-and-neck with Starmer in polls that ask who the ‘Best PM’ would be (a measure considered highly predictive of the next election).

As Partygate intensified in late 2021, Starmer drew ahead of Johnson on this measure, extending his lead to 9pts by January 2022. As with voting intention, his support then dipped (Johnson was tied by March) but surged again following Johnson’s fine. By the time Truss departed, Starmer led in Best PM polling by 32pts – the biggest lead for a Labour leader since September 2007.

But after Sunak ascended to office, the numbers shifted quickly. Starmer finished the year with a lead of just 3pts, a far cry from the 13pt lead over Johnson in July and the 32pt lead over Truss in October. But still, it’s very uncommon for a Labour leader to be ahead of a Tory PM on this question by any margin: neither Corbyn nor Miliband ever led on average.

Approval ratings

Amongst the many “accomplishments” of Liz Truss was one she probably never expected: she managed to make Keir Starmer look good. From March 2021 onwards, the Labour leader had a net negative approval rating (meaning “disapprove” was higher than “approve”). Even after Johnson’s resignation, Starmer’s net approval was still poor (30% approve, 41% disapprove).

After Truss’s reign began, however, voters suddenly decided that Starmer wasn’t so bad after all. His net approval rocketed up, reaching +7 in November, and ending the year on +1. Whilst this is not an enormously positive figure (he peaked at +17 in June 2020), it’s still the first consistent positive rating for him since early 2021. And considering that Corbyn’s net approval fell as low as -51 in June 2019, many in Labour will likely be happy with a +1 rating.

As for Sunak, his approval ratings are an improvement on the abysmal performances of Johnson and Truss – but they aren’t great. He ended the year with a net rating of -9, and whilst this is much better than the -58 result achieved by Truss, it is definitively worse than Starmer.

Summary

So in summary, at the end of December 2022:

⚫ Labour enjoyed a poll lead of 20pts, enough for an overall majority of 300 seats

⚫ Starmer led Sunak by 3pts in ‘Best Prime Minister’ polling

⚫ Starmer enjoyed a net approval rating of +1, compared to Sunak’s net rating of -9

All of this indicates that if an election was held next week, Labour would win handily. But whether Labour can keep this momentum going until 2024 remains an open question. In May, a series of local and Mayoral elections will give us a good guide as to how Labour’s poll leads translate into election results. I’ll be covering those in detail, so keep an eye out.

But if I were to speculate, I’d say it’s difficult to see a path back to victory for Sunak and the Tories. Voters kept giving them the benefit of the doubt over and over again – with Brexit, the economy, Partygate and Boris Johnson. But after Truss crashed the economy and quit after 45 days, it seems to me that voters have lost patience with the Conservatives. 83% of Brits now think that the party is running the NHS poorly, and 65% disapprove of the government more broadly. These are not promising numbers for the Tories.

Sometimes voters just get exhausted by a party, especially if that party is as useless and incompetent as the Tories have been. It’s easy to say anyone could win against the Tories right now, and I agree – but that doesn’t change the fact that the 2024 election is currently Keir Starmer’s to lose.

New boundaries, new projection model

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With the publication of the revised constituency boundary proposals for all nations and regions of the UK, it seems like a perfect time to update my seat projection model for UK Parliament elections – both to incorporate these new boundaries, and to outline some other changes I’ve made. Whilst the new boundaries have not been formally approved by MPs, they are unlikely to be rejected.

In this piece I’ll go through the effects of the new boundaries on the parties’ hypothetical 2019 numbers, as well as updates to how I treat Reform UK and the SNP in my model. There are some other small changes too.

Before I go on, I’d like to strongly thank Owen Winter for his expert projections of notional 2019 results under new boundaries, and the person who runs Election Maps UK for sharing map files for the new boundaries. I’d also like to credit Ben Walker of Britain Elects for suggesting that Brexit Party votes should be redistributed to second preferences in any 2024 projection model, as Reform UK is effectively a different party. It was a very good idea, so I’ve followed his lead.

The boundary review

The process of adopting new constituency boundaries has been a turbulent one. The current boundaries were adopted in 2007, and are based on population data gathered in 2005 – meaning that by the time of the next election in 2024, the boundaries would be 19 years out of date. Two boundary reviews have been attempted since 2010, but both have failed: the first because the Lib Dems blocked it, and the second because it was abandoned by the Conservative Party.

Both of these previous reviews had a mandate from the government to reduce the number of seats to 600 (a decline of 50 seats), but following Brexit, Boris Johnson dropped this requirement and legislated for a new review that would keep the number of constituencies at 650. The boundaries have been drawn by four independent Commissions (one each for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland), and need to be approved by MPs. They almost certainly will be.

The new boundaries

Overall, this new boundary review lacks the dramatic changes of its two failed predecessors. The biggest changes are in Wales (-8 seats) and South East England (+6 seats). Outside of these two areas, no more than 3 seats will be lost or gained. One or two seats would change hands compared to 2019: for instance, North Durham and Kensington are both now notionally Labour.

In terms of the political parties overall, Owen Winter estimates that under the new boundaries, the Conservatives would have won a majority of 92 seats in 2019 (up from 80), gaining 6 seats. Here’s an interactive map showing what the result would have been.

Amongst the major parties, Plaid Cymru would be hardest hit (losing 50% of their seats) with the Lib Dems losing 3 of their 11 seats (27%). Labour would only lose two and the SNP would stay the same.

Now, let’s talk about what this means for my seat projection model.

My existing model

Up until a few weeks ago, my seat projection model was simple:

  • I looked at the 2019 results in each constituency;
  • Then I looked at the change in national vote share between 2019 and now;
  • Then I applied that change in vote share to each individual constituency.

This is known as ‘uniform national swing’ (UNS). It’s an imperfect method but I’ve found it to be useful, aside from remarkable situations like the sudden SNP surge after September 2014 (when one had to look at Scottish-only polls by necessity). But given recent huge changes in polls, and the boundary changes, I decided it was time for an update.

My new model

I will still be using UNS predominantly in my model, but with the following changes:

  • Using the new boundaries as a baseline for the 2019 result;
  • In Scotland, using a mix of Scottish polls (weighted at 80%) and UNS (20%);
  • Redistributing 2019 Brexit Party vote to voters’ second preferences;
  • In seats where Change UK / independents did well, adjusting for their absence in 2024.

In short: it incorporates the new boundaries, takes account of Scottish polls, and brings in adjustments that take into account the practical reality on the ground. Here’s an interactive map of what the notional 2019 result looks like, taking into account the new boundaries and my other changes. As indicated on the map, the Tories would notionally gain 7 seats as a result of my adjustments – all seats where the Brexit Party performed well in 2019, and where the Tories benefit from their absence.

Winters estimated that the Tories’ notional 2019 majority is now 92 seats; my adjustments increase this slightly to 108 seats.

The impact

So, what does this mean for my numbers going forward? Let’s look at the current polling average for November 2022. The graph below shows a comparison of my projected seat outcome under the old model and the old boundaries (UNS) and the new model (which I will refer to as UNS-Plus).

As you can see, there are essentially no differences – in large part because the slight Conservative advantage from new boundaries and BXP votes is cancelled out by an enormous Labour surge. But if we look at a neutral national environment (i.e. one where the Tories and Labour are tied) the changes become far more obvious, with the Tories gaining 12 seats relative to the old model. This is the result of both notional seat gains and the incorporation of Brexit Party second preferences.

Conclusion

In short, you are unlikely to notice any great difference between my old seat projections and the new ones – because any Conservative gains as a result of methodology changes are being cancelled out by an enormous Labour poll surge. But if the polls start to tighten, the mismatch between popular vote and seats is likely to become ever-more noticeable, with the Conservatives pulling ahead in seats before they pull ahead in vote share.

For now, though, this is just a bit of methodological tidying-up. I hope it was still interesting!

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.