While not quite unanimous in their speculation over what this month’s local elections mean for the coming General Election, there is broad consensus that it was a pretty rotten night for the Tories even if, as The Sun put it, ‘short of a breakthrough’ for Labour.
Current speculation tends to be about whether we are looking at a repeat of 1992, where the polls pointed to a modest Labour victory, or 1997, an election at which the Tories took such a beating that afterwards there were more than 190 Labour seats that were safer than the safest Tory seat (John Major’s constituency of Huntingdon).
It can be dangerous to draw firm conclusions based on historical precedents, but the past can be a helpful pointer to the future, not least by contextualising what constitutes a ‘large’ or ‘small’ defeat (or victory). So what do these latest set of local election results tell us?
Firstly there is the voting intention backdrop: Labour’s lead is in the range of 12% to 27% with most clustered around the mid-point. Interpreting vote share into election results is an inexact science but is a reasonably good guide to the scale of what Labour need to do in order to win an overall majority of Commons seats. At the moment, unless there is significant levels of tactical voting in key seats, Labour are polling at the squeakier end of where they need to be. That may be no bad thing for a party which needs at all costs to avoid the complacency that comes when you are widely expected to win.
The best interpretation of the local results is how they compare with how the parties have performed in previous sets of elections that were held at about the same point in the electoral cycle. There have been three sets of local elections in the recent past where the Tories lost more than 1,000 council seats shortly before a General Election: 1991, 1995 and 2019. The latter was an outlier in that, unusually for a party which had been in Opposition for nine years, Labour also lost seats (albeit not as many as they had in 2015, the previous time those council seats were up for election).
Helpfully, then, this gives us two comparable sets of local elections, in 1991 and 1995, which both took place within 24 months of a General Election.
In 1991, the Tories lost 869 councillors (just under 9% of the total number of council seats contested) while Labour gained 467 (about 5% of the total). The national Labour poll lead over the Conservatives at the time was 5% points.
In 1995, however, the Tories lost a whopping 1,956 councillors (28% of the total) and Labour gained 1,661 (15% of the total). The average Labour poll lead that month was more than 32%.
Coming back to today and this month the Conservatives lost 1,063 councillors – 13% of the total number of council seats contested – while Labour gained 537, or almost 7% of the total.
Con seats lost
Lab seats gained
Total number of seats contested
Council seats won/lost
If we were looking for clear answers, these local elections results will disappoint. Labour will take comfort from the fact that the Tories lost on a scale greater than that of 1991 but the Tories will take comfort from the fact that Labour gained councillors on a scale not dissimilar to that in 1991.
What we do not see in either the vote share figures in national polls, or in local election results, is definitive proof that we are in the territory of 1992 or 1997. It seems hard to see how the Conservatives can hold on to enough seats to win an overall majority, but it is not clear either how Labour can secure outright victory.
While we cannot quantify it, what is indeed similar to the mid-1990s is the Tory Party moving into brace position, abandoning discipline and scrapping over its philosophical soul ahead of what many expect: that they will lose power, but without really any clear path through to understanding yetwhat the next administration will look like.
Andrew Hawkins is Director of the polling firm Whitestone Insight