This may, Labour faces its first major electoral challenge since last June, when its unexpectedly strong showing raised spirits across the Labour movement. All of the councillors for London’s boroughs are up for election, along with one third of councillors in metropolitan boroughs – including big cities such as Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester – as well as the same one-third count in 17 unitary authorities such as Portsmouth, Reading and Slough, and 68 second-tier districts such as Ipswich and Lincoln.
The opinion polls right now seem stuck, and as such might not be much of a guide to detailed local and regional performance. Both Labour and the Conservatives seem to be hovering a little above the 40 per cent mark that they both cleared back at the June 2017 general election. Labour, probably and slightly, have their noses just in front: but really, given the only middling record of British opinion polls, it is hard to be sure. Taken as a whole, the polls at the moment point to a Labour minority government, able to govern only with the help of the Scottish National Party, the Welsh Nationalists Plaid Cymru and the single Green MP, Caroline Lucas.
It is hard to avoid the impression that Brexit – and, more importantly, the cleavages of age, geography, social status and cultural outlook that it highlighted and revealed – has gathered voters in England and Wales into two tribes. The first, very crudely made up of relatively socially conservative over-50s who live in medium-sized towns and across a relatively settled ‘Deep England’ of suburbs and villages, has seen the majority of its Ukip supporters move over to the Conservatives. But there is a second Britain, mainly living in cities and radical university towns, and full of the under-50s trying to raise families or make their way in a punishing job and housing market – and in which Labour has hoovered up most left-leaning Liberal Democrats, ex-Greens and voters who previously backed smaller left parties.
This situation seems unlikely to change until the reality of Brexit dawns, and a new prime minister takes over from Theresa May. Only then will some of the likely lines of the next election become clearer. But these local elections – taking place this time only in England and Wales – will give us some precious pointers as to whether the country really is resolving into two hostile camps, eyeing each other warily in a kind of cultural Cold War.
On the surface, it might be a bit of a standstill contest. In mid-March, Labour led the Conservatives in the polls by just 0.6 per cent (41.3 per cent to 40.7 per cent), if we take an average of each pollster’s last survey, while individual results varied between a Labour lead of seven per cent (with the polling company Survation) and a deficit of three per cent (recorded by Opinium): but the last time most of these wards were fought, in May 2014, the party had a slightly bigger lead. Labour’s lead was just under three per cent that month, with a rather bigger range between a lead of seven per cent and a deficit of one per cent. On a uniform swing, given that Labour is not performing quite as well as against the Conservatives as it was early in 2014, we might expect Labour even to lose a few seats.
Except for three things. The first is that local elections do not throw up results exactly like general elections, even once experts have approximated the equivalent share of each party’s vote on a normalised national basis. Put simply, voters simply do not always choose the same party to run their council as to govern the nation. The Liberal Democrats managed to gain 18 per cent of the vote in the 2017 local elections, just a month or so before they went on to gain under half that total at the general election only a month later. Labour was lagging in the polls at the time of the 2016 local elections, but in the end lost few council seats in a performance that was lacklustre, but not disastrous.
The second complicating factor is the precipitous decline of Ukip, which gained 17 per cent of the vote (and 166 councillors) in 2014. Ukip right now seems to be in advanced state of decomposition, with national leadership woes, defecting councillors and huge falls in its vote at council by-elections all contributing to the suspicion that they will lose almost all, and perhaps every single one, of the council seats they contest this year. The majority of that vote will move over to the Conservatives, as it did in 2017; but some of those voters will simply not now turn up at the polls, and some smaller but significant chunks of ex-Ukip support – for instance in smaller English cities or struggling coastal communities – might help Labour make up any deficit that emerges in ex-Ukip heartlands. Councils such as Hartlepool, North-East Lincolnshire and Great Yarmouth are worth watching in this respect. The Conservatives will probably lose seats this year, but their gains from Ukip – not only of wards, but of votes where they and Labour are close together – will likely blunt any widespread cull of their councillors.
The third and most important reason that we cannot extrapolate too far from polls in terms of council seats won and lost is where these votes are happening. London is set to be the most important battleground this year, and all indications are that Labour will do extremely well here. Labour did very well in the capital at the 2017 general election, achieving a swing of over six per cent and taking three Conservative seats. London is in general full of those under-50 remain voters, social liberals and renters who are increasingly slipping out of the Conservatives’ orbit: in addition, European Union citizens are eligible to vote in these elections, they are disproportionately concentrated in London, and they are unlikely to look kindly on Mrs May’s party.
Such is the increasing grip of the metropolitan media, that it is probably in London that the headlines will be made. Although the latest YouGov London polling in late February showed almost no changes in voting intention since the general election, there seems to have been a huge seven per cent swing from the Conservatives to Labour since the last time these boroughs were contested in 2014. Labour can certainly hope to take control of Barnet, and may even find themselves running Westminster: they might just be able to manage to seize control of the Conservatives’ flagship borough of Wandsworth too. If they do manage all that – and the last result would seem to be on a knife-edge – then Mrs May’s leadership of her party could immediately come under even greater scrutiny.
Elsewhere, a number of interesting contests will be worth watching. Will Labour continue to make progress in towns that look more and more like distant London suburbs – in Reading, for example? Will they push their vote even higher in Hastings, where they did quite well in 2014 and which is part of home secretary Amber Rudd’s very vulnerable Westminster seat of Hastings and Rye? Can Labour appeal in relatively blue-collar Harlow – a seat it held until 2010, but in which the Conservative Robert Halfon presently enjoys a 7,000-plus majority? What about Dudley, where the Conservatives did very well – in both Labour Dudley North, and Tory Dudley South – in 2017? There will be myriad clues in the details.
Altogether, Labour is likely to come away with a medium-sized haul of new councillors. But that should not breed the type of complacency that the 2017 general election – Labour’s third defeat in a row – inexplicably seems to have evoked in many partisans on the left. Oppositions are supposed to gain councillors. Labour added 88 councillors in 1984, and 76 in 1988 – the first contests after its disastrous election losses in 1983 and 1987. After those admittedly very small gains as a proportion of council seats up for election, it still went on to lose the next election.
The real test is to be had at a more granular, and perhaps more challenging, level. Labour must break out of London, do well across areas where Ukip has previously done well, and show that it can move forward in seats that are marginal at Westminster. If it can do that, then it might be heading for government after all.