On Thursday we have this year’s batch of local elections. This is the smallest of the four year local election cycle – there are no district or borough councils up for election, it is just the County Councils and a few unitary councils (mostly those that used to be county councils but had their districts abolished, like Durham, Cornwall, Northumberland, Shropshire and Wiltshire – although Bristol also has a third of its councillors up for election).

Without any elections in London, Scotland, most of Wales or the Metropolitan counties this is, by definition, a rather Tory set of elections. When the counties were last contested in 2009 when the Conservatives were riding high in the polls they took overall control of every county council except Cumbria. Of the 2392 seats being contested, sixty percent are currently held by the Conservatives (accounting for boundaries changes in some councils Rallings & Thrasher reckon the totals at C 1452, L 245, LD 481, OTH 214). All the councils up for election except Bristol are “all-outs”, with every councillor up for election, making it far easier for councils to change hands. With the Conservatives starting from an extreme high, it is almost inevitable that they will lose a lot of seats and lose control of a substantial number of councils.

It also means that Lib Dem councillors up for re-election are overwhelmingly in LD-v-Con areas, not LD-v-Lab areas. In recent local elections the Lib Dems have done OK against the Conservatives, but been massacred where they are up against Labour in metropolitan areas. With very few LD-v-Lab urban areas having elections, don’t expect huge Lib Dem losses this year.

Before local elections there is normally a rather pathetic game of expectation management by the parties, of claiming that party X needs to be making an absurd number of gains to be doing well, or that party Y expects to lose millions of seats so it claim it’s not as bad as they thought when they only lose so many… as if doing badly is somehow less bad when you can pretend you expected to do worse, or doing well is somehow even better when you can pretend you expected to be mediocre. Actually this year they haven’t been so bad compared to some previous years, though there are still a couple of days left! The predictions from Rallings and Thrasher, which are really the only decent guide, are that the Conservatives will lose around about 310 seats, Labour will gain around 350, the Lib Dems lose around 130 – roughly speaking (for there have been many changes in councils since then) this would reverse the 2009 changes and take us back to the position at the 2005 local elections, fought on the same day as Labour’s general election victory.

There is also the question of UKIP – we can expect them to do well in terms of share of the vote, but a more interesting question is whether it translates into council seats. While the national polls tell us that UKIP have gained significant support, what they don’t really tell us is whether that support is broadly uniform across the country (in which case it won’t be translated into many seats), or whether there are particular areas of UKIP strength (in which case it could result in lots of councillors elected). In 2009 when these councils were last contested UKIP only had candidates in a quarter of them, so we don’t even really have data on where they were strong four years ago! A year ago in 2012 UKIP actually did pretty well in the local elections in terms of the votes they won where they stood… but got hardly any councillors because their vote was evenly spread even where they did do well (to take some examples, in Basildon they got 17% of the vote and came third, but got no councillors at all, in Thurrock they got 18% but only managed one councillor). We may see the same, or we may see more effective targetting or them getting over a critical mass of support in some councils and gaining large numbers of seats. Right now we really cannot tell.

The other measure people will look at is the BBC’s “Projected National Share” (and the Rallings and Thrasher equivalent, the “Equivalent National Vote”). Both of these are essentially a projection of what the national shares of the vote would be if there were local elections everywhere, rather than just in the Toryish bits of the country that actually have elections. Both are based on looking at the swing in various key wards.

In 2012 the BBC’s Projected National Share was CON 31%, LAB 38%, LDEM 16%. The Rallings & Thrasher Equivalent National Vote was CON 33%, LAB 39%, LDEM 15%. Rallings & Thrasher are predicting CON 29%, LAB 38%, LD 16%, UKIP 11% for this year’s ENV.

Just in case anyone is about to get excited about that high Lib Dem score (or disappointed that Labour is expected to be below 40%), bear in mind that people do vote differently in local elections to national elections. This is most evident in the case of the Liberal Democrats, who consistently do better in local elections than national ones (something I looked at back here.)

Finally we come to the question of what the elections tell us, and whether they matter. My usual answers are not much, and very much so! In terms of national levels of support local elections really don’t tell us very much we don’t already know from the national opinion polls. If people vote the same as the national polls suggest, then it doesn’t tell us anything new, if they vote differently, it is almost certainly because people just vote differently in local elections to they way they do in national elections. This year’s results may be slightly more useful than usual since they may give us some insight into exactly how the national UKIP support is distributed at a local level, though of course, it can’t tell us anything about their relative levels of support in Metropolitan areas.

Just because local elections don’t tell us much, it doesn’t mean they aren’t important – they matter deeply in terms of shaping the narrative, in terms of whether a party is seen to be moving forwards and doing well, or unpopular and doing badly. In 2011 the narrative emerged that Labour had rather flopped in the local elections and the Conservatives had done well. In 2012 Labour did very well in the local elections and it cemented the poll increase they’d had since the 2012 budget (though Boris Johnson’s victory in London stopped it being across the board good news for Labour). This year we can be pretty confident of solid Labour gains, and there is no obvious source of Conservative solace, so unless they really mess up the expectations management the effect on the political narrative is likely to be a strong positive for Labour, with them being seen to make progress, gain support and generally be on track towards success. The most obvious obstacle to that is if UKIP do particularly well and the weekend’s news coverage ends up being all about a UKIP breakthrough, rather than Labour success. On top of that there is the practical impact – councillors are often the ground troops, the backbone of local associations and the people who knock on doors and deliver leaflets, so Labour’s gains will help them in the future, Conservative and Lib Dem losses will slowly rob them of feet on the ground.

And, not least, they also determine who actually runs county councils for the next 4 years.


ComRes’s monthly telephone poll for the Independent is out tonight, and has topline figures of CON 32%(+4), LAB 38%(nc), LDEM 9%(-3), UKIP 13(-1). Changes are from the last ComRes telephone poll at the end of March, before the death of Margaret Thatcher and before the recent narrowing in the polls which this poll obviously reflects to some extent.

UPDATE: The Sun have also tweeted tonight’s YouGov poll, which has topline figures of CON 30%, LAB 39%, LD 11%, UKIP 14%. The UKIP score is the highest that YouGov have yet shown for the party. As ever, one shouldn’t read too much into a single poll but given the publicity that UKIP have received over the last few days it would not surprise me to see an increase. I would not expect lots of publicity about a handful of loony council candidates for UKIP to do them much harm to what is largely an anti-immigration, anti-government, anti-establishment and protest vote – people are sending a message, not picking a government. If anything the coverage of them, and the implication that other parties are taking them seriously enough to bother attacking them, could well help.


This week’s YouGov results for the Sunday Times are now up here. Topline results are CON 31%, LAB 40%, LDEM 11%, UKIP 11% (slightly bigger Labour lead than other YouGov polls this week, but nothing outside the normal margin of error. We’d need to see some consistent 10 and 11 point leads before pondering whether the recent narrowing in the polls had faded away again).

The rest of the poll had various questions about party leaders, UKIP and the Conservatives, some questions on Abu Qatada, benefits and the NHS. Let’s start with Nigel Farage. Asked whether he is doing a good or bad job as leader of UKIP Farage gets very positive ratings – 44% think he is doing well, 20% badly giving him a positive job approval rating of +24, compared to the negative ratings of the three main party leaders. Of course, based on the actual question asked people should say this, whether someone likes or dislikes Farage’s politics, if you’ve taken a minor party that got under 3% at the last election to around 11% in the polls you are doing a good job!

Compare and contrast this to when YouGov asks if Miliband, Clegg and Farage would make a better PM than David Cameron. Despite a much, much better job approval rating only 11% think Farage would be better at being PM, 40% think he would be worse. Now, I don’t think any serious commentators were thinking that UKIP support was based on people thinking they were a serious alternative government anyway (it is largely a vote based on anti-immigration, anti-Liberalism sentiment, an anti-government protest and general positive reactions towards Farage’s anti-politician stance), but it underlines the difference between job approval ratings and whether people think a politician is a plausible Prime Minister. People thinking you are doing a good job as the leader of a minor party is clearly not the same thing as people thinking you’d do a good job running a country.

Asked about Cameron himself, a third of people say he has not done enough to modernise the Conservatives, 24% that he has gone too far and abandoned too many traditional Tory policies, 20% that he has gone the balance about right. As you’d expect, most current Tories think he has got things about right, most Labour and Lib Dem supporters than he hasn’t gone far enough, most UKIP supporters that he has gone too far. There is an even divide (36% to 36%) over whether David Cameron is a Thatcherite or not, though the party split is interesting – it is Labour supporters who are most likely to think Cameron is a Thatcherite (presumably respondents who do not regard this as a good thing!), most Conservative supporters don’t think he is. Only 15% think that Cameron was right when he said “we are all Thatcherites now”.

Abu Qatada

61% of people think that Qatada should be deported regardless of what happens to him in Jordan, compared to 25% who think that he should only be deported if we are satisfied that evidence gained from torture will not be used against him. However, when people are asked directly whether it would or would not acceptable for evidence obtained from torture to be used against Abu Qadata 51% say it would be unacceptable, compared to just 28% who accept it – an apparent contradiction in people’s views. My guess is that this is down to people thinking it is wrong for evidence from torture to be used against Abu Qatada… but that it is not an excuse for him to remain in Britain (essentially a “yeah, it’s very wrong, but it’s not our problem”).

Benefits

Asked about the general overall package of benefit changes that the government have introduced over the last month (including cutting council tax benefit, capping benefits, reducing benefits below the rate of inflation and the so-called “bedroom tax”), a majority (56%) say that on balance they support the changes, compared to 31% who are opposed. Supporters of the benefit changes include a third of Labour voters.

Accident and Emergency

Overall 29% per cent of people think A&E has got worse since the coalition came to power, compared to just 5% who think it has improved and 32% who think it has stayed the same (and compared to a more neutral verdict about what happened under Labour). People are less negative about A&E at their own local hospital – amongst those who have attended their local A&E in the last three years 21% think it has got better, 28% worse, 40% stayed the same. This is a fairly common pattern we also see on crime, schools and about people’s own MPs, people are more positive about their own local services than they are about services in the country as a whole.


This morning’s YouGov poll for the Sun had topline figures of CON 32%, LAB 40%, LDEM 11%, UKIP 12%. For the time being at least we seem to have settled into a Labour lead of about 8 points in YouGov’s daily polling.

To pick up on another couple of questions from earlier in the week, on the suggestion by Len McCluskey that there should be a general strike, 57% of people said they would oppose a general strike with 27% in support. Naturally large majorities of Conservative and Lib Dem supporters were opposed, amongst Labour supporters 49% said they would support a general strike, 33% were opposed. Ed Miliband has totally dismissed the idea of a general strike and said it would a terrible idea – asked before Miliband commented, 40% of people said that Labour should oppose any such strike, 21% that they should support it, 27% that Labour should remain neutral.

On the same poll, George Osborne continued to be narrowly preferred to Ed Balls as best Chancellor, 29% to 24%. Asked the same question about whether people would prefer George Osborne or Alistair Darling as Chancellor, Darling is narrowly ahead 25% to 29%. The contrast isn’t vast, but obviously Darling does appeal to some parts that Ed Balls does not.


On poll movements

This morning’s YouGov poll for the Sun again showed a Labour lead of seven points – CON 32%, LAB 39, LDEM 11%, UKIP 13% (that’s Tuesday MORNING’S poll, btw, Tuesday evening’s isn’t out yet!). Five of YouGov’s last six polls have shown single figure Labour leads, whereas previously the average Labour had been consistently around 10 or 11 points. Put in the context of the falling Labour leads from ICM, MORI and Opinium it is pretty undeniable that something is afoot.

YouGov’s average figures in the first half of April were CON 31%, LAB 41%, LD 11%, UKIP 11%
The average over those last six polls is CON 32%, LAB 40%, LDEM 11%, UKIP 12%

So roughly speaking we appear to have had a small increase for the Tories, a slight knock for Labour. At this point we can normally expect lots of speculation about what has caused it… or more typically, lots of people claiming that the thing they personally care deeply about has caused it, the thing they think their party shouldn’t be doing has damaged them, or the thing they think their party should be doing has helped them. Normally such claims don’t bother with evidence.

The harsh truth is that we usually can’t really tell what has caused a movement in the polls. Sometimes there is an obvious event that coincides with a big shift in the polls which, while it doesn’t prove anything, does strongly imply a connection (after all, we can’t be sure that the big drop in Tory support in March last year was definitely due to the budget, but it would be a remarkable co-incidence if it wasn’t!). Other times there are all sorts of plausible explanations.

The most obvious explanations for the current narrowing relate to Margaret Thatcher’s funeral. That could impact the polls in terms of lots of positive retrospectives about Thatcher in the media… or could have an indirect effect in the sense that it interupted the normal flow of politics. David Cameron got to spend a week or two looking statesmanlike without the normal dirty business of politics and governing. However one could equally look at other underlying factors, the welfare debate for example, perhaps a generally more focused presentation by the government since Lynton Crosby returned, some figures from the Blair era apparently criticising Ed Miliband. All these things add up.

My own working assumption is still that is it is a Thatcher effect of one sort or another that will fade away, but it really is impossible to know. We shall have to wait and see if it lasts.

UPDATE: The Sun Politics team have tweeted tonight’s results – CON 33%, LAB 40%, LD 10%, UKIP 12%