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May 24 local elections – what do they tell us?

Alice in Wonderland is alive and well. The narrative around the local elections in the media and wider commentariat appears to be almost the opposite of reality. Let us go through this one political party at a time:

Tories – The accepted commentariat wisdom seems to be that the Tories had a terrible result because they lost just under 500 seats, a few councils, one mayor and a Parliamentary by-election. Now, we’re not trying to pretend up is down, or losing 500 seats is a good result, but it is a normal one for a sitting government at the end of a third term, a moment when all political parties are universally unpopular. Ask Gordon Brown. Ask John Major. The idea that these elections were going to be anything other than bad for the Tories would be mad. But the truth is they could have been a whole lot worse. Let's invert the logic:

The Tories were predicted to lose over 500 council seats; they lost just under that. There was a fear that Ben Houchen, the Tees Valley mayor, could lose his job; he very comfortably won. It was also feared that Andy Street, the West Midlands mayor, could be trounced; in fact, with an electorate of 3 million, he lost by just 1500 votes on a recount. Even in the London mayoral race, although he won, Sadiq Khan massively underperformed the current Labour lead in national polling. If any or all of these things had gone the other way, Rishi Sunak would quite possibly be gearing up for a leadership election. He is not. There is no coup. The ERG rebels seem to have laid down their swords and accepted the recent poll of Tory party members that 60% of them do not want another leadership election.

Moreover, the Tories will interpret a more a mixed set of results for Labour than it was hoping for as a positive. Yet again it is clear that Starmer is not Blair. He is not getting Tory voters to switch in significant numbers. What the Tories need to do is just turn out their on strike voters to close the gap. The Sunak team will be quietly happy about the disaster they avoided with some ease.

Labour – Much of the commentariat would have us all believe that these local elections were a magnificent triumph for Labour and the red carpet to Downing Street is being rolled out before them. But stats don't lie; they didn't win well enough. They should have been smashing the Tories. Instead, the minor parties did much of the heavy lifting; the Lib Dems, Independents and Greens.

The media made much of some Labour wins which were always nailed on certainties. Who cares that Labour won mayoralties in the East Midlands, or Liverpool, the North East, Salford, in Yorkshire etc. That was never in question. What was revealing is what Labour didn't win. Only just beating Andy Street in the West Midlands mayoralty; that's not good enough. Not picking up target authorities like Harlow, Bolton, Burnley, Dudley, Worcester, Hastings and Oxford. Losing Oldham and losing councillors in Bristol. Again, that's just not good enough. That's not where Tony Blair was in 1996.

For two successive local elections, the polls have placed Labour 20 points ahead of the Tories, but when real votes have been cast, Labour has only actually delivered a 7-9 point lead, depending on whether you believe election gurus Professors Rallings and Thrasher or celebrated pollster Sir John Curtice. That number just isn't going to lead to Labour easily winning a majority at a General Election anytime soon, let alone getting close to anything that could possibly be called a landslide.

Labour’s projected share of the national vote was 34%, actually down on their 2023 result. For perspective, that’s lower than Ed Miliband (38%) and miles off Tony Blair (43%) at the same point in the election cycle.

Lib Dems – This was the moment for Ed Davey to show us he is the next Nick Clegg. Two council wins and just over a hundred new Lib Dem councillors doesn’t really cut it. They have 15 MPs right now; Clegg had 62 and so was the kingmaker in 2010. Sir Ed has a long way to go to get anywhere near those sort of numbers. And the Lib Dems have been flatlining in the polls at around 8-10% for more than four years. Clegg had them at 23%. So they are way off the pace.

Reform – The ex-UKIP, ex-Brexit party was doing its best to pretend it’s going to be a serious player at the General Election. Some perspective: sure, it acted as a repository for protest votes in a Parliamentary by-election with horrible circumstances for the Tories. But it won just two more council seats. Yes, just two! In reality, it achieved much less statistically than UKIP was achieving in its heyday in the early 2010s. Richard Tice is no Nigel Farage. As a protest vote in lesser elections it has some fun, but it simply isn't going to win any Parliamentary seats anytime soon on this showing. The only thing Reform will achieve is to damage a number of sitting Tory MPs, helping Labour and the Lib Dems to slip into first place.

Small parties – At lesser elections the Greens and Independents also have fun as a protest vote. But come the General Election, they just vaporise and become irrelevant in the big picture.

So in summary, this is where we stand after the locals, looking forward to the General Election: better than the Tories feared, but not good enough from Labour. The Lib Dems remain very far from Nick Clegg territory and Reform will be a nuisance but win nothing.

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