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Tangled up in Blue

May 12th 2017

Politicians often tell their media interrogators that 'the only poll that counts is the one on the day' in order to deflect hypotheticals about likely outcomes. Given the recent track record of polling accuracy, this standard line has taken on new credence in the last few years. And this General Election has given observers a rare opportunity to look at the results from 'the one on the day' part way through - in the form of the local election results.

It is important to caveat any conclusions from last week's local elections with the following health warnings; these elections were not nationwide and therefore give a partial picture, they do not dictate the outcome of the General Election even in areas where polls took place and finally, some people really do vote for a different party locally than nationally. All of that being said, there are some interesting trends in these results that will be figuring heavily in the thinking of each main party's HQ as they turn back to the national picture.


First, the Conservative Party did astonishingly well for a party that has been in Government for seven years - winning 563 council seats and taking control of 11 new councils. This is a remarkable achievement and demonstrates that Theresa May's strategy of uniting the Right is paying dividends. UKIP lost all but one of the seats they were defending - further evidence of their soufflé-like collapse. Despite the best efforts of accomplished Conservative spinners to downplay the wins, and prevent complacency, these results point to a Tory surge. Beneath the top-lines there were also some fascinating local stories; the Conservative Party picked up seats in inner-city Glasgow and appeared to cement their position as the main opposition to the SNP.

But there were troubling failures, too. In Wales the Conservative Party did well but did not seize control of councils such as Bridgend - a major target both for this campaign and for the national election - and overall, Tory vote share was high but not nearly at the levels predicted by some of the wilder polling. Labour had a disastrous night. No Opposition has lost council seats in three consecutive local elections. Until now. North of the border no resurrection is in evidence, particularly worrying given Corbyn's promises during his leadership bids that red-blooded socialism would win back Scottish voters. Wherever it was considered possible (albeit unlikely) for the Conservatives to beat Labour in the new Metro-Mayoral elections, they did. Andy Burnham outperformed expectations but aside from his stunning, first round victory there was little to put smiles on Labour faces.

As well as recovering from this battering, Corbyn has spent much of this week dealing with the fallout of leaks and internal squabbles. His manifesto (or a draft of it) was shared with national newspapers this week, outlining the shape of Labour's policy prospectus ahead of schedule. Allies of the Labour Leader expressed outrage at the leak and were quick to blame Labour HQ. However, it was Corbyn's team themselves who had most to gain from the timing of the leak - it shored up their more radical policies ahead of a special meeting of all sides of the party to finalise the document and it generated good publicity for some of their ideas. Many will have felt that Jeremy Corbyn's zen-like assurance that there would be 'no witch-hunts' to uncover the leaker rather pointed to it having been one of his mates rather than one of his internal foes. Some close observers of the far-Left believe this leak was about shaping the narrative for after a defeat - in order to secure Corbyn's leadership (or that of a chosen successor) the Left will need to be able to tell a story of betrayal that excuses them their own role in losing to May. This week's shenanigans can be seen as the first draft of a self-penned script of martyrdom. For the Lib Dems, the local elections came as a shock and a worry. They lost seats and made zero progress, rather undermining the momentum of Farron's much discussed 'fight back'. There is clearly a potential constituency for Liberal Democrats amongst Remain voters who can't bring themselves to support Comrade Corbyn. But they do not yet appear enthused about Tim Farron and his party. Lib Dem strategists believe that at the national level this will change - when voters are considering Brexit rather than bins they will lend the Liberals their votes. Maybe. And certainly, the lopsided 'progressive alliance' - in which the Greens have stepped aside for Lib Dem or Labour candidates in 22 seats - may help. But there is precious little evidence that Farron's strategy is translating to votes on the ground.... the yellow team are getting jittery.

The local elections do not tell us what will happen on June 8th. But they give us some runes to read and the story they tell continues to be one of Tory dominance, Labour retreat and a squeeze on third parties. Many front pages this week accused Labour of trying to 'take Britain back to the 70s' but if the emerging Red-Blue political map is to be believed then it might be our entire electoral system skipping backward forty years. Politics is looking like a two horse race once more.

Scores on the Doors:

  • Poll of Polls (Britain Elects; May 12) – Con 46.7; Lab 28.8; Lib Dem 9.5; UKIP 6.5; Grn 3

  • Bookies Odds (Ladbrokes GE Overall Majority) – Con Maj 1/25; No Overall Maj 16/1; Labour Maj 33/1; Lib Dem Maj 500/1; UKIP Maj 1,000/1

  • Quote of the Week: “I’m tempted to say in current circumstances, I’m not sure how many votes we’ll get.” – Theresa May tackling the big issue of Brexit’s impact on Britain’s Eurovision head on.