Local Elections 2022: What can we expect?

Labour will need to take next week’s results in their stride. Yet there are trends to watch.

Voting Ballot Box

Mike Buckley is the director of the Independent Commission on UK-EU Relations and a former Labour Party adviser 

Whatever the results of next week’s local elections one thing is certain: they will be pored over for evidence both for and against the likelihood of a change of government in 2024.

Some will point to Labour gains and Conservative losses in parts of the country where Labour needs to do well in 2024, most likely the Red Wall seats of the Midlands and North.

Others will point to Conservative resilience against Labour or Liberal Democrat insurgents. Both sides will be armed with statistics that seemingly prove their argument.

The reality is these elections will almost certainly tell us little about the likely outcome of the next general election.

Local election results map poorly on national elections for a variety of reasons.

Some results are the product of local factors unrelated to the national picture. Local elections do not take place in every part of the country every year; results can appear to favour one party over another simply because of where they were held.

We also need to bear in mind that in 2018 when these seats were last fought Labour had its best local election results since 1998. That high water mark will be hard to beat, regardless of the cost of living crisis and Partygate.

If the Conservatives lose few seats it may therefore look as if they have had a good night, when in reality to be doing well they should be gaining seats to recover 2018 losses.

Differential turnout between national and local elections can also mislead. It is perhaps no surprise that turnout is lower in local elections than generals.

More surprising may be who votes and who does not. Those most likely to vote have a strong party identity, are elderly, settled (those who their own home outright) or postgraduates. The least likely are younger people, private renters, those who pay little attention to politics or lack strong party affiliation.

It is this last group that should concern commentators eager to make predictions and political parties themselves.

In general elections it is voters who lack a clear party affiliation, and who pay attention to politics only sporadically, who are the most likely to be the swing voters each party needs to win to gain seats and a majority.

Their absence in local elections prevents us from gaining a view of their current voting intention and whether it has shifted since the last general election. It overstates the importance of more predictable voters who make the same choices, rain or shine.

Local election results can also overstate the importance of smaller parties. A committed Labour voter in general elections, for example, may vote Green next week. A die hard Conservative may vote Liberal Democrat to send a message over Partygate while fully intending to return to the fold in 2024.

Labour may therefore find next week’s results disappointing. Critical swing voters that moved from Labour to the Conservatives in 2019, and that the party needs to return, may be missing from these elections in large numbers.

Other voters they will be able to count on in 2024 may stay at home or vote for one of the minor parties. Many of the seats up for grabs are in areas where Labour is already strong and is unlikely to make many more gains.

Labour will need to take next week’s results in their stride. Yet there are trends to watch.

2021’s results were largely a continuation of trends seen in 2019. More affluent areas continued to move away from the Conservatives (though the beneficiaries of this vary) while less affluent areas continued to move away from Labour, with the Conservatives making most gains.

Places with high levels of graduates also continued to move away from the Conservatives, demonstrating the pincer movement Labour was caught in, where the Greens and Liberal Democrats made gains on one side while the Conservatives pushed against the other flank.

The Conservatives hope to continue that trend next week, briefing journalists that they could take control of Sunderland city council for the first time since its inception in 1973.

If they do it will in part be due to local factors – two former Labour local councillors were sentenced for child sex offences, another was sued after branding a member of the public a paedophile – but will also allow the Conservatives to claim they are still making gains in the Red Wall.

At the other end of the country Labour are hopeful of winning Wandsworth and Barnet councils, two totemic Tory pillars in London that the party has firmly held for decades.

But gains outside the capital matter more as this is where the next general election will be won or lost.

One clue to the 2024 result will be found in what happens to the Liberal Democrat vote. The only political shocks of this parliament have been the Liberal Democrat by-election wins in Chesham and Amersham, and in North Shropshire.

If Ed Davey’s party continues to take votes from the Conservatives it will concern Conservative HQ as it could indicate that pro-Remain, liberal small-c conservatives are willing to abandon the party in ways they were not when faced with the possibility of a Jeremy Corbyn government in 2019.

A second clue is what happens in Leave areas. If the Labour vote recovers it could show that the Brexit schism is ending. While both Brexit identities remain stronger than party affiliation both are fading, with the Leave identity fading faster than Remain. That may help Labour gain a hearing among voters who gave it no time in 2019.

Whatever happens next week these results matter. Which parties end up running councils or taking up mayoralties makes a difference to local people, while Labour gains of any kind allow the party to claim it is taking steps back towards national power.

But reading the results for wider trends remains complex and uncertain. Beware overly simplistic readings; they will almost certainly be wrong.

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