Labour has a long way to go if it is to become a One Nation party

The Electoral Reform Society loves a good election to get our teeth into - and May’s county council elections were no exception.

Darren Hughes is director of campaigns and research for the Electoral Reform Society and is a former New Zealand Labour minister and MP

The Electoral Reform Society loves a good election to get our teeth into – and May’s county council elections were no exception.

A lot of the focus went on UKIP – understandably given their 23 per cent share of the vote and the effect it had on the Tories losing control of ten councils in their heartland.

Even the Sun noted that first past the post had been tough on UKIP, as they won nowhere near the number of seats that almost a quarter of the vote should have given them.

It matters because we argue that party performance in local elections effects the success of a party at Westminster

Our new report From Councillors to MPs, looks at the ability of parties to enjoy success at Westminster based on their performance in local communities. The results are clear – parties that cannot win in local government do not build up the local knowledge and grassroots support required to win constituency seats at general elections. 

Conversely, parties that have concentrated resources on winning council seats have seen those investments repaid with success at Westminster. The Liberal Democrats demonstrated this again during the Eastleigh by-election, and the Greens successfully broke through by winning Brighton Pavilion in 2010 after a period building up support on Brighton and Hove council.

ERS has looked at the results of May’s poll and predicts that history is about to repeat itself again – this time for UKIP. Crunching the numbers shows that the insurgent party stands the best chance of establishing a Westminster presence if it targets its resources on the seat of Boston and Skegness.

This Conservative-held constituency showed a great appetite for the UKIP message, with the party overturning almost all of the Tories seats to emerge with ten out of a total of 13 in the constituency.

The bottom line is this: local government elections matter. And so does data. Our report cites the emergence of Big Data as a new dominant feature of politics, an era heralded in by the last Obama campaign.

As the news site Politico observed: “They know what you read and where you shop, what kind of work you do and who you count as friends. They also know who your mother voted for in the last election.”

So why is all this important for Labour? A look back on recent history demonstrates how the falling high tide mark for both major parties is a portend for further inconclusive results in Westminster elections.

At the time Margaret Thatcher entered office the Conservatives had 12,143 councillors. It is a figure they have never bettered, even during the high watermark of David Cameron’s leadership. They then had control of major cities such as London, Birmingham and Edinburgh, the metropolitan counties of Greater Manchester, Merseyside and the West Midlands.

As Pippa Norris pointed out in her book on the 1997 Labour landslide, the Labour Party had successfully built a machine at local level that pushed the Conservatives out of those town halls.

And the effect appears to have been permanent.

After the May 1996 local elections the Conservatives were left with only 4,400 councillors, far behind Labour’s 11,000 and the Liberal Democrats 5,100. On their return to office in May 2010 the Conservatives could boast of 9,405 councillors.

But there has been no real recovery in former heartlands. While the early years of Cameron’s leadership saw clear gains the most notable progress was in marginal local authorities.

2007’s local elections demonstrated the Conservatives were much more prone to fight the Liberal Democrats than Labour. Consequently, the party made most of its gains in its base of southern England, particularly in the South East.

This pattern is repeating with Labour in opposition. Labour’s current tally of 8,151 councillors is still light years away from the high point of 1997. There is something to be said for winning more councillors wherever they are, but extra councillors in Liverpool do not help the Labour Party in much the same way as extra councillors in Tunbridge Wells will never aid the Conservatives.

There has been much talk of the North/South divide over the years. It is true that the North of England tends to vote more strongly Labour than the South, but the electoral system exaggerates the real divides between the North and South electorally.

With time these divides have polarised.

Areas of the country that were once Labour have become even more so, and similarly for the Conservatives. The eradication of regional bases has led to less competitive politics with the South broadly Conservative (with some Lib Dem strength in the South West), the North, Scotland, Wales and London being broadly Labour and the Midlands being Britain’s equivalent of America’s ‘swing states’.

This polarisation is one of the reasons why hung parliaments are becoming more likely. Until 1974 there were always 150+ seats that were marginal, by 1980 it had fallen to 80, it then rose again reaching 114 in 2001 but has since then fallen again to 85 in 2010.

In doing so the system exaggerates the sense of a nation divided, and increases the polarisation of the country. More and more regions of the country are homogenous regions of control for one party, with local bases wiped out and struggling to rebuild.

For Labour, the message is clear: if the desire to become the One Nation party of British politics is a genuine goal, then local government results show there is still a long way to go. Sticking with First-Past-the-Post in English and Welsh local elections makes the challenge that much harder.

And with UKIP on their way to Westminster as a vehicle for protest voters, Labour’s challenge is getting more difficult.

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