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Pol/Econ: How to interpret Local Elections.
Friday, 04 May 2007 Written by Henry Midgley
My colleague Vino Sangrapillai has dealt with some of the elections that happened in the United Kingdom yesterday- those in Scotland. But there were also elections that went on in Wales and in England and the results are being taken by some as the first indications of what the next elections might look like.

The basic results indicate a swing against Labour, in favour of the Conservative Party with the Liberals gaining slightly in some areas but falling back in others- Labour has lost many seats in the Welsh Assembly, lost control of such councils as Blackburn, Oldham, Plymouth and Gravesham. They have not though suffered any sort of meltdown- maintaining for instance their position in places like Bury and Bolton.

The Conservatives have gained councils all around the country- both in the North where for instance they took the East Riding of Yorkshire and in the south, taking Plymouth. Having said that they still remain exiled from some of the great northern cities- metropolitan Manchester and Liverpool in particular and may have come fourth in Scotland. The Liberals had a mixed night- winning seats in Salisbury but losing a council in Torbay- their share of the vote has remained stable country wide though. (It should be noted that not all of the results are in yet- but I think a picture has emerged- sufficient to write this article upon, I will add additions should the picture change during the day.)

What the National Implications are not

Of course readers of Bits being an international audience are probably fairly uninterested in the future of Blackburn and Darwen local council- so what does this tell us about the next UK General Election. The problem is that it doesn't tell us very much. In Britain there is a long history of punishing the party in power by using local council elections- Labour has been losing councils ever since 1997- indeed in 1997 the Conservatives did significantly better in the council elections than in the National elections. Likewise when the Conservatives were in power in the 1980s, they were swept away in council after council- eliminated in many areas.

The shares of the vote this time- the Tories got roughly 41% up one from the last local elections, the Labour party were on 27% up one from the last local elections and the liberals fell a point to 26%, aren't too remarkable- the regional variations which I'll come onto are interesting here. But those shares of the vote don't indicate a massive Tory revival- if the Conservatives won that percentage at a general election they would form a government- but as many as a fifth of voters alter their votes between a General Election and a Local Election- and as I've said they do that against the Government.

One consequence this may well have that Nick Robinson, the BBC political editor, talked about last night and which is probably true is that it reduces the chance of a panic within the Labour party. It strengthens the chance that Labour will opt for the continuity candidate Gordon Brown. Michael Meacher, a leftwing candidate for Labour's leadership, sounded pretty pathetic as he argued that these elections demonstrated the need for the party to change direction. In truth the establishment within the Labour party has been fortified- and in the elections for leader and deputy leader- to be held one would expect at some point this summer given that Mr Blair has made it clear he will be resigning soon- one would expect establishment candidates like Mr Brown for the leadership, and everyone but Mr Cruddas for the Deputy Leadership to be strengthened.

So why does this matter?

It doesn't tell us anything about the short term- either the next election or the Labour leadership- are these elections completely insignificant, I can hear you ask?

No they aren't. There is a key long term significance to what happened last night. If you take a council like Chester which the Tories are holding for the first time since 1986 you can see exactly what the significance is. The Conservatives by getting Chester and by electing several local councillers there are reinvigorating their activist base in the city. It is commonly accepted that in the UK where you elect councillers you end up strengthening your base of support- families and friends come out to canvass for local councillers, in a reasonable time they are turned into supporters and activists who knock on doors and talk to people- and in the UK it is rightly assumed there is no substitute for the humble door knocker as a campaigner.

The fact that the Tories have reinvigorated themselves in areas of the country in which historically they have done badly- Chester- and held on in places they barely gained last time like Coventry means that their local parties in those areas will grow. One of the ways to win a seat in the UK Parliament- even if you don't get a massive swing to you- is to have won the council beforehand and have the man and woman power out on the street to support you. That is what will now happen for the Tories in the places that they have won or gained a significant presence in. Labour is facing the opposite problem- losing seats means that a local party declines in membership and vigour- afterall its much easier to campaign if you are winning than losing- and consequently that weakens your hold on the Parliamentary constituency.

In the longterm thus this is a very damaging structural result for the Labour party- they are being exiled in the way that the Tories were in the late eighties and early nineties from many councils, their own heartlands just like the Tory heartlands in the eighties and nineties are being infiltrated by other parties gaining councillers. And no Labour figure however junior or senior will need to be reminded what the consequence of Tory retreats in local government were- 1997.


These elections are significant therefore- and possibly significant for the next election. They don't tell you that the conservatives will win the next election at all- the vote as I've said fluctuates too much between types of election- but they do inform you about what might happen in various seats. The Tories are back in Chester and Coventry and places like that- their base is reinvigorated which should contribute to a strong campaign next time- and if they lose an even stronger one the time after- it might be enough to swing some close seats into their column which could give them an election or like Labour in 1997 a landslide depending on the overall political picture.

Its worth emphasizing though that the implications of this are long term and structural- rather than a short term swing towards the Conservatives- what we are seeing is a structural shift of medium term advantage in some seats towards the Tories- interesting but whether it will impact the next election is a good question, in my view should present trends continue it will definitely be a substantial factor in the election after that.