Is Labour managing expectations? Or will 7th June really be that bloody?

by Stephen Tall on May 5, 2009

‘Labour prepares for a hammering at the ballot box,’ shouts The Independent headline.

As the paper notes, this will be the first time in 16 years that the English county council elections have not taken place on the same day as the general election – that could spell trouble for Labour if ‘differential turnout’ comes into play, with Labour supporters sitting on their hands (or protest voting) while motivated opposition party supporters hot-foot it in their droves to the polling stations.

“All parties lower expectations ahead of mid-term elections, but even the other parties admit Labour is bound to struggle this time,” reports political editor Andrew Grice.

Certainly the Lib Dems might expect to poll ahead of Labour in June. Let’s have a look how the nationally-projected share of voting has gone in the last three sets of equivalent council elections:

1997: Labour 33%, Conservative 36%, Lib Dems 26%
2001: Labour 31%, Conservative 39%, Lib Dems 25%
2005: Labour 25%, Conservative 40%, Lib Dems 28%

Looked at in this light, the prospects for Labour in the locals look pretty dismal – after all, if the party could poll only 25% on general election day when Labour was more popular than it is today, what might happen in a month’s time? And as local election results will be available from the early hours onwards of Friday, the weekend news agenda is likely to be dominated by dire stories of the defeat of Labour councillors.

Though as John Curtice sagely notes, “local elections are only taking place in shire – and thus mostly Tory – England. Only 27 county and seven unitary councils (including five new ones) are at stake. Any shortcomings in Labour’s performance would seem capable of being dismissed on the grounds that little of national significance can be read into such unrepresentative results.”

Euro-election results are likely to be less dramatic than the locals. First, none of the three major parties did well in 2004, so the likelihood of any one of them doing that much worse is limited. Secondly, because the elections are held under a form of proportional representation, there is far less chance of dramatic results as you get under first-past-the-vote. And, thirdly, because the Euro election results won’t be known until Sunday night by which time most of the public and the media have drawn their conclusions about who ‘won’ 7th May.

Here’s the percentage results for the last three Euro elections for the major parties:

1994: Labour 44%, Conservative 28%, Lib Dems 17%
1999: Labour 36%, Conservative 28%, Lib Dems 13%
2004: Labour 23%, Conservative 27%, Lib Dems 15%

Nick Clegg and some media commentators have raised the prospect of the Lib Dems beating Labour in the Euro poll. This seems unlikely to me, though I’ll be delighted to be proven wrong. In 2004, for example, the Lib Dems polled 27% in the locals and 15% in the Euros on the same day – very clearly the voting public treats the two elections quite differently (and quite right, too). Even with Labour in the dire straits they are, it’s hard to imagine the Lib Dems rising much above that watermark this time around.

All figures from Election Statistics: UK 1918-2007