Nailing my colours to the mast

by Stephen Tall on May 3, 2007

Exactly a month ago, I made my prediction for the projected national share of the vote for today’s set of Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and local council elections based on ICM’s polling data:

Con 42%, Lab 25%, Lib Dem 25%, Others 8%.
(This would equate to a 6% swing from Labour to the Tories and a 4.5% swing from the Lib Dems to the Tories.)

I have no reason to resile from this guesstimate… at least not yet. How this plays out in terms of seats won and lost is outwith my psephological capacity. A couple of weeks ago, Sean Fear, a Tory activist who writes pretty impartial analyses of local election results for, estimated the following:

I believe the Conservatives will gain around 750 seats, net, the Liberal Democrats will be broadly unchanged, and Labour will lose around 850 seats. The difference will be made up by gains for minor parties, principally the Greens and BNP.

These seem, to me, to be credible figures. However, three points need to be borne in mind:

1. Much depends on the distribution of the seats won. The Tories do not want to be piling up more Council seats in places where they already have MPs to the exclusion of making significant inroads in areas with key marginal seats. Election guru John Curtice identifies Ipswich, Gravesham and Bury as bellweather councils for the Tories in today’s Indy.

Equally, the Lib Dems may be rather more sanguine about losses to the Tories in the south of England (except in those area where there is an incumbent Lib Dem MP) if they are partially or wholly compensated by gains from Labour in the north, bringing more target Parliamentary seats into realistic focus. This will matter rather more than the precise number of net gains or losses.

2. Looking at any one night’s local election results only ever gives a snapshot. I prefer trends. And there are trends-a-plenty to be garnered from this rather wonderful research paper, Local Elections 2006, published by the House of Commons Library.

The Tories currently have c.8,500 councillors, 39% of the total number. For David Cameron to draw level with Margaret Thatcher at this equivalent stage in the cycle – 43% of all councillors were Tory in 1976 – he will need to add 900 councillors to his party’s tally tonight.

At this stage in the electoral cycle, in 1994, Margaret Beckett was Labour’s leader, and Labour held 38% of all council seats. By the following year, 1995, with Tony Blair in charge, 46% of councillors were affiliated to Labour. Therefore, Mr Cameron will need to help get elected over 1,500 councillors to draw level with where Mr Blair found himself after a year as leader. This illustrates the scale of Mr Cameron’s task, and indicates why 750 net gains today is a minimum requirement to demonstrate a Tory recovery.

Another trend that’s clear is the stability, and gentle increase, of the Lib Dems’ councillor base. Here are the figures for councillors’ party affiliations in the past five years:

2002 – 32% (Con) 37% (Lab) 20% (Lib) 11% (Other)
2003 – 35% (Con) 33% (Lab) 21% (Lib) 12% (Other)
2004 – 37% (Con) 30% (Lab) 21% (Lib) 12% (Other)
2005 – 37% (Con) 29% (Lab) 22% (Lib) 12% (Other)
2006 – 39% (Con) 28% (Lab) 22% (Lib) 12% (Other)

It is interesting to note that, though there’s a perception the Lib Dems have been on a slight downward curve since the dizzy heights of the 2003 post-Iraq War ‘bounce’, the reverse is in fact true. However much Tory and Labour activists might wish to believe otherwise, the Lib Dems are continuing to grow – which makes it even harder for either of them to win a majority at the next general election.

3. Finally – these are local elections. Results will vary: each party will have something to cheer by the end of the night, each will have something they’d prefer to forget.

Though many of the public will vote according to their perception of national politics, a large proportion will be voting to show displeasure with their local council on a range of parochial issues. Incumbents everywhere are more prone to a kicking which could buck national trends, and will signify absolutely nothing about whether Mr Brown or Mr Cameron will be living in Number 10 after the next election.

That doesn’t, pace Daniel Finkelstein, mean we should ignore today’s results – demoralised local parties do not make for enthusiastic foot soldiers, and all parties rely on the sheer slog that their volunteers are prepared to undertake during general elections. But it does mean we should be cautious in our interpretation of the welter of data which will be presented by all sides in the next 24 hours.