After every local election I start with the same warning – local elections are not general elections. Fewer people vote, on different issues, and for some who don’t vote on local issues it’s an opportunity for a mid-term protest vote. They aren’t a prediction of the general election. That does not, however, mean that local elections tell is nothing about the bigger picture and it certainly doesn’t mean they don’t have a massive impact on the wider political narrative and public opinion. What can we pick up from last night’s results so far?
Let’s start with UKIP. At the most basic level UKIP have obviously done very well. As I write the BBC suggest they are getting about 25% of the vote in wards they contest (though much worse in London) and have gained about 100 councillors. Two things to put this in context though – the first is that this is roughly the same level of support as they got at the local elections last year. I don’t really know if that’s good or bad for them. At one level they’ve sustained last year’s advance, it’s not a flash in the pan and they are more firmly establishing themselves as a major force. On the other hand, these are local elections on the same day as the European election… shouldn’t they be improving on last year? Second caveat, their vote is still very evenly spread. They are getting many more votes than the Lib Dems, but far fewer councillors. As was the case last year, UKIP are doing fantastically well at coming second in many places and that doesn’t build the council base they require in target seats for the general election. They have made some breakthroughs though – most notably in Essex councils like Thurrock and Basildon where they took seats from both parties, pushing Labour Thurrock and Tory Basildon into no overall control. They’ve also done extremely well in Rotherham.
Moving onto Labour, their results nationwide seem a little lacklustre. They’ll be pleased with the performance in London where they’ve gained several councils, most notably the Tory “flagship” of Hammersmith & Fulham, but they’ve made only sporadic progress elsewhere. As I write John Curtice doesn’t seem to have produced a projected national share yet, but he’s suggested they are up only 3% since 2010 so it sounds like it could be a very anaemic Labour lead. I think the bottom line for Labour is that their local election performance is much like their performance in general election polls. They aren’t an opposition that is soaring ahead in the opinion polls, they’re an opposition that has a very modest lead in the opinion polls. These aren’t soaring local election gains, they are modest local election gains.
The Tory performance is the mirror image of that. They are losing seats and councils, but not disasterously so. They’ve done badly against Labour in London and will be sorry to have lost Hammersmith & Fulham, but happy they have some gains here and there to weigh against it.
Finally the Lib Dems. Horrid council results have become par for the course for them, and these seats were last fought at the height of “Cleggmania” so losses are to be expected. The party normally comfort themselves with the defence that the party do far better in areas where they have sitting MPs. As usual, this is true in some cases, but not in others. The Lib Dems have held their own in places like Colchester, Sutton and Eastleigh… but they’ve also lost ground in Lib Dem held areas like Richmond, Kingston, Haringey and Cambridge, so it’s swings and roundabouts. Either way it is a continuing hollowing out of Lib Dem support as they retreat back towards islands of support around some of their sitting MPs.
And to the wider impact? To some degree we’re still in a holding pattern until Sunday, but the questions are straightforward enough. For UKIP it is how much of a boost they get from today’s successes (however impressive you think they actually are, the media narrative this morning is all “UKIP SURGE!”) and how long that lasts. For the other three parties it is to what extent they hold their nerve – overnight there were a couple of “Tories should have a pact with UKIP” from the Tory backbenches and a few grumbles from the Labour backbenches, but these were all from the usual suspects, the Rees-Moggs and Stringers of this world, who were saying these things anyway. Wait and see if it holds over the next few days and the Euro elections.