Normally, interest in local elections is reserved only for the most die-hard of political nerds. However, they are relatively good indicators of how well the British people think the government of the day is doing, though carried out on tiny turnouts and occasionally affected by whether local people are satisfied with their bin collections. This year, the local elections did have the added excitement of the first elections for Metro Mayors in the regions of Greater Manchester, Greater Liverpool, The West Midlands, The West Country, Teesside and Cambridgeshire and Peterborough. These essentially form the final frontier of the George Osborne devolution agenda, but have failed to catch the public’s imagination, which meant they sit nicely alongside local councils in the ‘relatively important sections of local government normal people really don’t care about’ bin.
This was all slightly thrown in the air by the announcement of a General Election to take place just one month after these local elections. Everyone after 2015 decided we don’t trust the polls anymore (until they confirm our biases, quelle surprise) but the local elections became one big national poll, with real voters and everything (though, in England, not in a lot of cities). Now the dust is settling, we can see some trends that emerged from the local elections that may play out in the general election in a month’s time.
The two big stories from the locals are kind of interconnected, so the state of the Labour Party can be addressed later while first focussing on the rise of the Conservatives. The Tory Party or, as they are now presumably being re-branded, The ‘Strong and Stable Theresa May Party’ achieved results that are a total aberration for any sitting government. To win seats as a government is impressive, to gain 319 seats in England, 164 in Scotland and 80 in Wales is basically unprecedented.
May’s personal popularity is currently off the charts, greater than that of either Thatcher or Blair at their peaks, and it appears she is having great success parlaying that popularity into electoral success. What was perhaps more surprising is the fact the Conservative Party has wholly consumed the corpse of UKIP, a party which died at some point between the EU referendum and the Stoke-on-Trent by-election. In seats across the country the swing to the Conservatives almost exactly mirrored the decline in the UKIP vote share.
This demonstrates that most UKIP voters a.) think that UKIP was only a vessel to achieve a departure from the EU and b.) now see Theresa May as the rightful heir to Nigel Farage’s leadership of that departure. May played to her new crowd with her utterly bizarre speech outside Downing Street the day before polls opened, accusing the EU of trying to undermine the British election. It remains to be seen as to whether she can keep these new voters happy. Her likely electoral church now spans former Lib Dems who voted Tory in 2015; ‘soft’ Remain Tories; working class ex-Labour voters either disaffected by the current state of the party or travelling over from UKIP, along with some hard-line, anti-immigration UKIP voters. The sermons from the Vicar’s daughter have so far been good enough to bring in the congregation, but she will struggle to keep them in the long run.
In England, Theresa May has turned the Conservatives into the party for the ‘Leavers’, in Scotland they are the party for the Remainers. Ruth Davidson, who in a world where political talent was equal to attainment would be leading the party in Westminster, has managed to drag in all the voters who supported remaining in the UK during the 2014 independence referendum, and if the results from Thursday are a good indication of the groundswell in support, she will be rewarded by making a solid dent into the SNP Westminster seat hegemony created in 2015.
Though the Bullingdon set may be (mostly) gone from the Tory leadership, the Moët will readily have been flowing yesterday, and those flutes will have received a top up with two astonishing results from the mayoral elections. The Conservatives had taken the very open race for the Westcountry and had romped home as expected in the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough race (which is slightly odd in that it is a Metro area without containing a properly major city, but there we go). However, they had expected to lose all the other races, with the caveat of a decent performance for Andy Street in the West Midlands. Instead, Street took victory in a very strong Labour area (given the inclusion of Coventry and Birmingham) in an immensely close race against the Labour candidate Siôn Simon.
The earthquake came from Teeside, which is Labour’s heartiest of heartlands. To emphasise how little the Conservatives thought they would win, their candidate basically opposed most of the parties’ Westminster policies, including a bizarre promise to nationalise the local airport. He won. This is where we can turn to the shambolic Labour performance. To lose in Teeside is unprecedented; to lose seats in three rounds of local elections in a row is unprecedented; to be the third party in Scotland is (you guessed it) unprecedented.
The failure of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership is clearer now than ever. Labour can be heartened that returns in the Welsh cities, Greater Manchester, and the Birmingham wards of the West Midlands were better than expected, but these results do not indicate that the party is anywhere close to power. The national vote share estimate by the BBC (basically an estimate of the General Election vote based on results in what are known as ‘key councils’) put Labour on 27%. This figure seems respectable until you get to any analysis, as this number basically represents Labour’s ceiling, which would mean they are headed to a general election with the best possible outcome looking likely to be a result marginally worse than the 1983 wipeout.
The Liberal Democrats also fared badly. They picked up lots of votes, but not in places where it made a difference to their number of seats. The national vote estimate put them at 18%, which seems suspiciously high, and in line to get back to about 20 seats in Westminster, which also feels like a best-case scenario at this point. Their issue may be that in targeting Remain voters, the only votes they will pick up are in big city seats already dominated by Labour. They may win back some of the seats in places like the South West that the Tories cannibalised in 2015, but it is equally as likely they see small gains in those seats gazumped by the Conservatives bloated by their new UKIP bulwark. Based off what we saw on Thursday, there is plenty of reasons for all the non-Conservative parties to be feeling blue, which, funnily enough, is likely how the electoral map will look on June 9th.