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How to interpret yesterday’s local elections

First, the caveats. With most local authorities now counting the day after local elections, as we write this blog post (early on the morning after) the jury is still out on what the results are and what they really mean. We will be sending out an analysis note at the beginning of next week – once our clients, consultant colleagues and friends have finished their coronation quiche and their Fortnum & Mason’s coronation tea – to give a clear analytical download on what really happened and how to interpret it.


Second, don’t be fooled by the early results. We learned again last year that how things look on the random sample of early-reporting councils may not be the whole picture.


Turnout looks like it was rather down: perhaps under a third of the electorate bothered, which always has an impact. There is of course lots of chatter about the impact of the new voter ID requirement. Worth noting is that this is very much from the left of centre parties who suspect (or want to big up how much) it might hurt them. It feels a bit rich from Labour considering it was them who first brought voter ID in for Northern Ireland elections when they were in government (where tellingly they don’t really have a dog in the fight at elections). Whether it does hurt the Left remains to be seen. There might well be just as many old aged Tory voters who it impacted as well.


We have written on our blog many times that local elections and by-elections are essentially protest votes; history shows us time and again that the governing party therefore gets a kicking and opposition parties prosper. And after the last year the Tories have had, they should get a right royal coronation kicking, no? But will they? There are of course several ways to measure local elections.


Councils and councillors


We can look at the number of councils that change control or the number of council seats won or lost by the parties. These are the headline-grabbing metrics that parties usually trumpet when they are doing well or better than expected and are normally what the media focus on. But in truth they are not very useful comparatives and thus not a great measure to value performance as each year the numbers of seats and their physical and political geography vary enormously, quite apart from the baseline start point of what happened in that same election four years previously. All in all, this makes like for like comparison really tricky.


PNS


The best measure to look at is the projected national share of the vote (PNS) or the national equivalent vote share (NEV). The former is produced by polling guru Sir John Curtice for the BBC, the latter by Professors Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher. As the name suggests, these use the local election results to estimate what each parties vote share would have been at a nationwide election, in other words, if it had been a general election. These are the numbers that the experts focus on and, as we go into the weekend, you’ll see the terms NEV and PNS all over the media.


But there are several things to say about these stats. First it is rare in local and by-elections for the main opposition party to hit their current polling numbers. Right now in the polls, Labour is around 15 points ahead of the Tories. It would be unlikely for Labour to replicate that in their PNS. In recent opposition years, 2012 has been their high point when they were 7 points ahead; last May, Labour were around 6 points ahead. Early indications are that it might be around 8%.


Double digit lead


But…but…but. To be confident of winning the next general election, that really is not good enough. At this point in the election cycle in opposition, Tony Blair and David Cameron were well into double figures against the then government of the day. If Starmer wants to be on track to win the next general election, most likely in late 2024, he needs to be in double figures.


So today and tomorrow, ignore the chat about councillors and councils and focus on the projected national share of the vote. That is the best ready reckoner we have right now.

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