Vote 2012: The Expectation Game

Polls have just closed in the various elections and referendums across Britain; Britain Votes’s Tom Harris marks your card for the night and day ahead.

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Polls have just closed in the various elections and referendums across Britain; Britain Votes’s Tom Harris marks your card for the night and day ahead

LFF-ballot-boxIf tonight is going to be your first experience of staying up to watch the national media’s election night coverage then I feel compelled to warn you of one thing – expect to get dizzy!

Seasoned election night watchers will know the spinning will know no limits as politicians of all colours try to put a positive glow on seemingly horrendous results.

The reason is that there are some fairly observable truths that mean simply making a net gain in seats this week doesn’t really mean a lot.

The seats which are to be contested tomorrow were last fought in 2008; this was a good year for the Conservatives (they gained 300 seats) and a bad one for Labour (they lost 434). Labour went on to post one of their lowest national vote shares in history two years after those elections and so a net gain of, say, 30 seats would not bode well.


See also:

Vote 2012: An introduction to the various elections on May 3rd 17 Mar 2012


To try and help everyone stay sane I have tried to show what will constitute a good or a bad night for each of the main parties…


Local elections are a good gauge of an opposition party’s ability to turn good polling numbers into wins at the ballot box. Labour’s results last year certainly showed they were back to winning ways with an impressive net gain of more than 850 seats.

That raw figure is unlikely to be topped as there are fewer councils holding elections this year, but Labour are expected to make more gains in this cycle.

The main reason for this is their terrible performance in 2008; they lost 434 seats in 2008, many in traditional strongholds, so there is a lot of low hanging fruit around for Labour. A quick glance at South Wales will highlight a number of potential gains for Labour, which would mostly be at the expense of Plaid Cymru.

If Labour claw back all their 2008 losses they will be hovering around 2004 levels of support. Of course, they went on to win a comfortable Parliamentary majority one year after that round of local elections, although their advantage in the national vote was relatively narrow.

A net gain of 400 seats should be the minimum aim – Professors Rallings and Thrasher have set a benchmark of 700 for the party to justify their current polling levels. A haul of around 550-600 would be regarded as a good night.

However, no matter how many council seats they gain, and how many councils they take control of, it’s hard to imagine tomorrow being painted as a success by the media if they fail to capture City Hall from the Conservatives.

Boris v Ken Round II is, of course, a very personality driven contest and is not really representative of the rest of the country for a variety of reasons, but as it’s the second biggest individual mandate in Europe it will be big news. If Ken fails, as seems likely from the polling, any good work across England and Wales will be buried.

The other potential thorn in Labour’s side though is Scotland. Their awful performance / the SNP’s excellent performance (depending on who you ask) in last year’s Holyrood elections took a shine off Labour’s council gains and a repeat performance will be jumped on again.

What’s particularly dangerous for Labour here is that the SNP’s conservative nominating in the first Single Transferable Vote Elections for Scottish councils in 2007 means that simply running an extra candidate and getting the same vote share as last time is likely to net Alex Salmond’s party a number of seats.

Labour should still make moderate gains in Scotland, but a symbolic loss in Glasgow will not make good headlines.


The Tories managed to gain 300 seats in 2008, many of them in ordinarily ‘red’ areas, and so they face a difficult task defending these seats.

This time last year the negative media attention was focused on the Liberal Democrats, and their leader Nick Clegg in particular, and the Conservatives were shielded from the usual local election slump national governing parties suffer.

In fact, the Alternative Vote referendum managed to unexpectedly motivate their base, and this resulted in a surprise small net gain of council seats for the Tories.

This year things will not be the same; if May 2011 was Nick Clegg’s turn to get given a bloody nose from the electorate, then Cameron should be bracing himself for tomorrow night. Their national polling levels have nose-dived since the budget and they appear to be finally losing some of their general election voters.

If the Conservatives manage to hang onto a significant amount of their 2008 haul it will have been good night for them – in fact, limiting their losses to less than 300 combined with a win for Boris will certainly be regarded as a job well done.

Liberal Democrats

After last year’s results the Liberal Democrats must be feeling things can’t get much worse. They lost almost a quarter of their councillor base in one disastrous night, as well as any chance of Westminster electoral reform for the foreseeable future.

Their polling has bumped along the low teens ever since but the party’s, and their leader’s, negative media coverage has been surpassed by their senior coalition partners in recent months. Local by-election results also show the famed Lib Dem ground operation is still working well, but its remit will now be limiting losses as opposed to gaining any ground.

Rallings and Thrasher expect the party to dip below the 3,000-councillor mark – they currently have around 3,100 – and a net loss of around 250 seats is likely. Although it may be expected, as 2008 wasn’t a particularly good year for the Liberal Democrats. this is still a bad result.

Having ousted Ming Campbell in favour of Clegg the party failed to make a significant breakthrough against a depleted Labour Party, making a net gain of just 33 seats. If their losses start to creep over 300 then alarm bells will be ringing for the leadership.

Minor parties

You need look no further than the results of two of Britain’s minor parties tomorrow to see how strong polling does not automatically translate into election wins under the first past the post.

UKIP have high hopes of ultimately deposing the Liberal Democrats as the UK’s third largest party. I’d suggest they set their sights a bit lower and try to overtake the Green Party in fourth place before they get too far ahead of themselves.

Despite generally polling above the Greens for most of the last decade UKIP lag way behind in terms of elected representatives (145-30, approx.). The Greens’ strategy of targeting a small number of councils paid off spectacularly in 2010 when Caroline Lucas gained Brighton Pavilion and became their first MP. They followed that up by becoming the largest party in Brighton at last year’s elections and subsequently formed a minority administration.

Brighton won’t be holding elections this year but the Greens’ ongoing tussle with Labour in Norwich is set to continue with both parties in touching distance of a majority.

As for UKIP, it’s hard to spot their first ‘Brighton’, let alone thinking beyond that. The party barely holds more council seats nationally than the continuation Liberal Party and the continuation SDP combined (hands up if you didn’t know either existed!).

UKIP should improve on their low base but because of their lack of recourse targeting it is unlikely they will make a great deal of gains. Their strong polling numbers have largely come from online pollsters too, so their share of the national vote will be interesting to see.

We are also likely to witness another milestone in the slow death of the BNP tomorrow. The party are defending six of their nine remaining councillors and as splinter nationalist parties are forming almost weekly it’s hard to imagine many of them will be successfully defended. Anyone dancing on their grave with too much exuberance should be wary though – the Far Right hasn’t disappeared, it’s just very disorganised… at the moment.

Finally, it will be worth looking out for Bradford’s results tonight to see whether Respect can follow up George Galloway’s sensational by-election gain five weeks ago. They had success in Tower Hamlets following Galloway’s last Westminster win so I can imagine Labour activists in that particular part of Yorkshire have been trying to learn the lessons of their recent loss very fast.

That’s about all that can reasonably fit into an already quite lengthy blogpost; it’s time to settle down with the endless supplies of junk food and energy drinks for a night of heavy spinning – don’t get too dizzy!


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