What do the polls tell us about Thursday’s local elections?

Are the Tories heading for a wipeout?

Voting Ballot Box

Voters across England will head to polling stations on Thursday 4 May. In total, over 8,000 seats are up for election across 230 councils.

These local elections might be the last electoral test before the next general election and will determine how towns and cities across the country are run for the next four years. With the Tories saying they could lose as many as 1,000 council seats, Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens are all hoping to make significant gains.

But what do the polls tells us about what might happen? Seven opinion polls have been published with fieldwork conducted in the last week of April. On average, Labour has a 16 point lead over the Tories in those surveys.

The average figures stand at 44% for Labour, 28% for the Tories, 10 for the Lib Dems, 6 for the Greens and 6 for Reform.

While national polls are poor indicators of what can happen in individual council elections, they can provide an idea of what general trends might look like. On the face of it, therefore, the polls suggest there should be a significant swing from the Tories to Labour on Thursday.

However, looking back to 2019 – the last time the seats up for election on Thursday were contested – suggests that Labour poll leads in advance of local elections don’t necessarily translate into Tory to Labour swings. That year, the final seven polls conducted in April showed that Labour had a not insubstantial lead over the Tories – with support for Labour at 31%, the Tories at 26%, the Lib Dems at 9%, the Greens at 5% and the Brexit Party (the forerunner to Reform) at 14%.

But despite having a five point lead over the Tories, Labour actually lost seats. That’s because the Liberal Democrats and the Greens saw the biggest gains in the elections that year. The Brexit Party didn’t stand any candidates in the election, so their support went elsewhere.

In 2019, general election polling didn’t map onto voting in the local elections, with 28% of voters backing the Tories, 28% backing Labour and 19% backing the Lib Dems.

So why the difference between national polls and local votes? Obviously, it’s partially about local factors in individual contests. But it’s also a result of voters being far more likely to vote for smaller parties in local elections than they are in general elections. That’s why parties like the Liberal Democrats and the Greens typically outperform their general election polling in council elections.

So going back to our original numbers on the current state of the polls, it seems probable that there will be substantial Tory losses on Thursday and that a significant portion of these will go to Labour. But it is also likely that the Tories will also see seats fall to both the Greens and the Liberal Democrats, both of whom are likely to pick up a higher proportion of the vote than their national poll rating suggests. For the Greens, this may be even more accentuated, as the party are standing more candidates than they ever have done before, with 41% of seats having a Green candidate on the ballot paper.

What about Reform? On the one hand, we might expect them to follow a similar pattern. This is, however, unlikely. That’s because Reform are standing in just 6% of the seats this year, meaning there is a very low ceiling in terms of how high both their vote share and number of gains could be.

Beyond the national polls, YouGov has done an in depth study into some tightly fought council races. Those polls suggest that the Liberal Democrats are on track to make significant gains in Chichester and Windsor and Maidenhead. For Labour, YouGov found that the party are looking to make significant gains in Darlington, Dudley, North East Lincolnshire, Swindon and Walsall. The Greens can take hope from the fact that YouGov looked at Mid Suffolk Council – where they are hoping to take control of the council – and found that local election support is at 40.1% for the Tories and 38.8% for the Greens.

Without other council level polling like this, it’s difficult to draw firm conclusions on what is likely to happen elsewhere. And of course, opinion polls don’t always predict precisely what will happen when voters go into a polling station. Despite all this, the current state of the polls, looked at alongside historical elections, suggest that the Tories are likely to make substantial losses and that these are also likely to come at the hands of not just Labour but the smaller parties too.

Chris Jarvis is head of strategy and development at Left Foot Forward

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