The local elections confirm that Labour is on course for power – but not a majority

'Labour needs to win the national popular vote by 9pts in order to win an overall majority, which would require an 11% swing – bigger than the swing achieved by Tony Blair in 1997'

Voting Ballot Box

Ell Folan is the founder of Stats for Lefties

It took them a very long time, but on May 4th the Labour Party finally had a good set of local elections. After performing poorly in the last seven local elections, the party achieved a solid victory in 2023, gaining 500 seats (as history suggested they would) and establishing themselves as the largest party in local government for the first time since the turn of the century.

Most commentators now agree: these results put Labour on course to win next year’s general election. But the results also showed the limits of Labour’s growth, and hint that victory may involve falling short of the elusive majority that the party has been denied since 2005. In other words, these were great results – but to overturn an 80-seat majority, “great” is not quite good enough.

To begin with, let’s sum up the good news for Labour. The party gained 500+ seats and won majority control of 22 additional councils, as well as emerging as the largest party on many that have ‘no overall control’ (NOC). As a result, it now controls the most councils (108) and holds the most council seats (6,500) in the UK for the first time since 2002. The geography of Labour’s gains was significant too: not only did they win back control of ‘Red Wall’ councils (such as North East Derbyshire and Stoke-on-Trent) but they expanded into southern Conservative enclaves (such as Dover and Thanet).

Previous local elections under Starmer’s leadership have been inconsistent and patchy phenomena, such as in 2022 when they flopped in London but surged in Wales; in these elections, however, the party’s advance was widespread and quite geographically diverse. Gaining Brighton from the Greens and Thanet from the Tories on the same day suggests that Keir Starmer has gathered a broad electoral coalition behind him.

Not only that, but Labour’s main opponent (the Conservatives) had an abysmal night. The Tories lost over 1,000 seats and ceded control of nearly 50 local authorities, reducing them to their lowest share of overall seats (30%) and councils (19%) since Tony Blair’s first term in office. The party’s vote disintegrated, with its voters abandoning them in all directions across England, from the East Riding of Yorkshire (lost to NOC) to Mid Suffolk (lost to Green) and Dover (lost to Labour). All in all, it was not the sort of performance you’d expect from a government about to win a shock fifth term. It looked more like the last gasp of an exhausted government just before it loses office.

However, there are reasons to think that Labour should be cautious before popping the champagne early. My election modelling suggests that the party needs to win the national popular vote by 9pts in order to win an overall majority, which would require an 11% swing – bigger than the swing achieved by Tony Blair in 1997 (10%). Anything short of that would leave the party struggling to win a majority, especially if the SNP bounce back from their current difficulties. And there is some evidence from the local elections that Labour is not hitting these targets.

Firstly, the party’s aggregate results were historically average. As explained in a previous article, 500 net gains (+7% of seats) is exactly what you’d expect from an opposition party at this stage in the electoral cycle; and most oppositions lose. Though these were the best Labour results in nearly a decade, this speaks more to the party’s recent difficulties than it does to anything extraordinary about the 2023 results – under Ed Miliband (who ultimately lost), the party made net gains representing 13% of total seats on average, twice what Starmer achieved in 2023.

Secondly, the overall projected vote share was underwhelming for the party. Labour led by 7pts according to Sky News, which points to a hung parliament where Labour is the largest party – but 28 seats short of a majority. Given the high expectations created by the 30-35pt leads achieved by Labour under Liz Truss’ brief premiership, a hung parliament where Labour has to rely upon the SNP is not what Keir Starmer was aiming for.

Thirdly, the council results themselves showed the limits of Starmer’s appeal. Although his party won back several ‘Red Wall’ councils, it fell flat in quite a few others. In Ashfield, the party was crushed by local independents, who won 90% of the seats; in Dudley it gained only a single seat, leaving the Tories with a sizeable majority; in Bolton, Wirral and Hartlepool, they fell short of a win; and in Stockton-on-Tees, the Tories gained 11 seats while Labour stood still. All of these results are fairly disappointing for Labour, given that regaining seats in the ‘Red Wall’ is a minimum requirement for getting the party back into government. Without winning back those former Labour seats in the North and Midlands, any gains in the South will merely be notable curiosities.

Finally, Labour faces a more unpredictable challenge in the form of the Green Party. The left-leaning ecologist party grew dramatically in these elections, winning majority control of Mid Suffolk and gaining nearly 250 council seats. Though their most headline-grabbing results were in rural Tory areas, the Greens also performed strongly in Labour areas. In Warwick, they emerged as the largest party; in both South Tyneside and Knowsley, they are now the main opposition; and in Norwich, they surged to their best-ever result. The party’s growth suggests that they could draw votes away from Labour in the next general election, and indeed the most recent YouGov survey shows them winning 10% of 2019 Labour voters versus 1% of 2019 Tory voters.

In short, there is no doubt that these local elections were Labour’s best in a very long time. They gained over 500 seats, watched their main opponent’s support disintegrate, and regained councils that had remained stubbornly out of their reach for many years. But the party also ran up against the limits of their popularity, achieved only an average result in a historical sense and faces new challenges from surging third parties. Given the collapse in support for the Conservatives, it seems fairly clear that voters want Sunak to lose his majority and want Starmer to be PM. But the message from these local elections is that voters aren’t inclined to give Starmer a majority either.

Comments are closed.