There is no sugarcoating the fact that the local election results have been bad for Labour. The Conservatives, the party of government for the past seven years, have made hundreds of gains while the opposition has lost out. While it is true that this is a complete aberration from what we would normally expect, I believe it is wrong to extrapolate too much about the upcoming general election. Doom spelling predictions for Labour cannot be deduced from these election results alone; we need to calm down and consider the strong factors at play.
Firstly, voter turnout and demographics. In a general election turnout is usually north of sixty percent, in local elections it is commonly less than half this. People vote based on the perceived significance of the election and the inconvenience the physical process of voting causes them. These elections, while an important chance to express our democratic will, are clearly in a different ballpark to their Westminster counterparts. From this we can consider the demographics of the small proportion of local election voters— people who are incredibly politically engaged or people with a lot of free time. Most of the population is not like this, and it is most of the population who will vote in a general election. In other words, in trying to deduce general election trends from local election results, we are overly augmenting the votes of specific demographics who will less proportionately sway the outcome in June.
Secondly, the issues. When voting locally people do not think about the government all that much in comparison to voting in a general election. Voting Labour locally carries with it no direct consequence of Jeremy Corbyn or Theresa May becoming Prime Minister. The ‘national interest’ is of significantly less importance, meaning that people could plausibly, and often do, vote for different candidates locally compared to nationally. We have already established that of the low fraction of the public that voted yesterday, they are disproportionately more likely to be politically engaged. This often means engaged at a local level, as well as a national one. As people have told me when out campaigning in my home town of Colchester, so long as the potholes get fixed the colour of your rosette is irrelevant. We cannot assume that people voting Conservative now will do so on June 8th—the same goes for all parties.
And finally, the utterly changed political landscape. UKIP have wilted, collapsed and died in these results. With Douglas Carswell now almost actively supporting the Conservatives, with Paul Nuttall not seeming to care about his party’s decimation and UKIP’s reason of existence essentially now part of the Conservative manifesto, the effective number of parties has lowered. What is more interesting is that most of the gain in the Tories’ vote share seems to have come from UKIP, not Labour. Seats where before Labour could sneak a win thanks a split right wing vote split between the Tories and UKIP, are now voting swinging decisively behind the Conservatives. Labour is not losing support, its problem is that UKIP is collapsing in on itself and being absorbed by Theresa May’s party. If this trend continues it will be an issue of vital importance for Labour in the General Election, but remember that UKIP is characterised by an anti-establishment, anti-Brussels and now anti-Islam populist approach. These issues are not confined to local wards and boundaries, they are national. I still hold that UKIP supporters are subject to the previous two factors: some of them will simply not have voted yesterday, some of them will vote for UKIP again when the election is perceived as nationally important.
John Curtice’s amalgamated prediction of the local election results in a combined national vote share puts Labour as losing just two per cent of the vote. The Conservatives are on 38 per cent, while the Lib Dems are on 18. These figures are clearly radically different to weighted, methodological and statistical opinion polling for the General Election. Yes, Labour didn’t do great this time around, but we need to be careful to not build mountains out of molehills. Local and General elections are different. We need to stop pretending they’re one and the same.