It’s almost like the inverse of the 2017 General Election results. This time, Labour were all but set to dominate the local elections and sweep the Tories out of London whilst the Conservatives were set to quietly withdraw into the countryside. Instead, what happened felt remarkably déjà vu; overinflated speculations were rumbled, and undervalued stock turned out to be remarkably resilient.
To provide some perspective for the high expectations of Labour, let us first look at the Conservative opposition eight years into the Blair government. In the 2005 local elections, the Conservatives took 40% of the vote share compared to Labour’s 25%. What makes this even more remarkable was the fact the Liberal Democrats beat the Government into third place with 28% of the vote and that, despite this, Blair won the General Election on the same day with a good majority. What does this tell us? It tells us that opposition parties do well in the local elections.
From 2005-2010, the Conservative’s average vote share in local elections was 39% compared to the Labour government’s 24%. All the while the Liberal Democrats were picking up around 25% of the vote. Between 2010 and 2018, however, the Conservative government has received, on average, 33% of the vote share in local elections, as has the Labour opposition. The remaining votes were picked up by the Lib Dems and UKIP. This indicates a much more contested local democracy with untypical strength shown by the governing Party and unusual, underwhelming performances by the opposition.
Between Miliband and Corbyn there has been little difference, with Miliband performing only a percentage point better than the current Labour leader in local elections. In other words, the Labour opposition is not doing as well as the Conservatives opposition irrespective of the leader. From the chart above you can see daylight between the Conservative opposition and Labour government before 2010. Then, when the Conservatives come into office in 2010, the same trend appears to form with the Labour opposition outstretching the Conservative government until 2013 when the government appears to have begun an upward trajectory which has continued through to the most recent local elections last week.
On the other side of the aisle, since 2013, the Labour opposition has failed to pull away from the government as the Conservatives did whilst in opposition. From the chart alone, Brexit, “austerity”, Windrush, and local council cuts do not appear to have harmed the Conservative performance at the ballot box in local elections. From this, it is possible to draw the conclusion that Corbyn has failed to capitalise on recent controversy and Labour, in general, has not been as effective an opposition as the Conservatives were.
However, there is a major caveat with reading into these statistics and that is the link between local elections and wider public opinion shown in other measurements like general elections. The 2017 General Election, for instance, saw Corbyn achieve a 12 percentage point higher vote share than in the local elections which were only a month previous, totally changing the Party dynamics in the House of Commons. This would suggest the opposite conclusion to what I just made about the local elections, i.e. the link between local and general elections is not so strong. Looking back to the Conservative opposition before 2010, they actually performed pretty poorly in the general elections despite their positive local election results.
What, then, can be drawn from the local election results? Well, I think it cannot be dismissed that the Conservatives are performing better than expected and Labour worse. We expect the Party in government to get a kicking in local elections, especially in light of controversy, and yet this hasn’t happened in the last few years.
UKIP have unmistakably fallen from grace, and although I haven’t found a reliable vote share prediction for the recent elections, their loss of 123 seats is a convincing verdict on their position in British politics, which looks to have been a bright but brief spark. Looking at the number of seats won and lost can be a bit misleading when looking for an indication for a national consensus, as the Lib Dems claimed 77 seats despite dropping two points in the vote share. Going on seats, we also see Labour gaining 73 compared to the Conservatives losing 33. This again somewhat runs against the grain of the projected vote share, but it nevertheless indicates how mild the gains and losses were compared to previous, more dichotomous local election results.
To explain these results perhaps requires a separate evaluation. However, I think the answer probably lies somewhat in the position of the Labour Party over Brexit. Though I have no evidence to support this conclusion, I suspect some voters have been vicariously pushed into voting Conservative through UKIP. It is no mystery that UKIP drew votes from the two major parties with its unique Eurosceptic and controlled immigration approach. With its recent collapse, I suspect many voters who voted UKIP in previous local elections saw the Conservatives as the new Eurosceptic and controlled immigration party in light of Labour’s fumbling of the whole issue.
Having said this, Labour did actually increase their vote share by 7%, so perhaps this will be an upward trajectory which continues into the next local elections which it certainly needs to if they hope to win the next general election. Moreover, though they beat the Tories in vote share in 2016 and 2014, this is their highest percentage since 2012. Like the 2017 General Election, however, the reception of the results has to be seen in the context of the expectations on which the outcome is ultimately judged, and on which Labour failed to make the inroads they expected whilst UKIP crumbled and the Conservatives tentatively held.
 Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher Local Elections Handbook 2005 (2005), p. 8.
 Figures have been used from Rallings and Thrahser’s Local Elections projections, House of Commons research papers, and BBC national vote share projections