Voices: Baselines, boundaries and bulls*** – what to look for in Thursday’s local elections

·5-min read
The long-term future of the UK is also at stake (Reuters)
The long-term future of the UK is also at stake (Reuters)

On Thursday there are elections in Britain. They will come as a blessed relief after weeks of embarrassing and demeaning political antics around Partygate, Porngate and whatever gate the Daily Mail can conjure up to attack the opposition.

The temptation for many on Thursday will be to use the occasion to blow a raspberry at national government, and Boris Johnson in particular. That is bad news for well over 5,000 local councillors in 200 councils whose jobs are on the line, and who are inviting us to pass judgement on their performance in delivering the dwindling number of local services which national government allows them to perform.

The national debate about the local elections is framed around the aggregate Labour lead in a hypothetical general election (around 6 per cent in the poll of polls); the future of Boris Johnson (34 per cent approve, 66 per cent disapprove); and, elsewhere in the UK, the prospects for Scottish independence and Irish unification. Nothing on the ballot papers, however, will directly relate to any of these weighty matters.

The headlines on Friday will be all about seats and councils won or lost. The political activists and anoraks who then pore over the results to interpret their national significance will stress that there are important Bs other than Boris: baselines, boundaries and bulls*** (aka “expectation management” or “spin”).

Baselines matter since the outcome of elections is determined by the swing in votes from when the seat was last contested. In London, it is four years since the seats were last fought. Throughout much of the rest of the country, a third of the seats are contested every year with one “fallow” year when other elections (often, at county council level) take place. The baseline is therefore a source of great confusion since a party can do very well relative to its current polling but lose seats if it starts from a high base, and vice versa.

The baseline effect will be seen particularly in London since votes last time (in 2018) were cast when Brexit was the issue of the day and the capital was strongly Remain. Labour and the Lib Dems benefited. Labour goes into these elections with a staggering 27 per cent lead in London but will do well to capture more than a handful of boroughs. The low-hanging fruit has already been picked.

Boundaries also matter in our first-past-the-post system based on wards (unlike in Scotland where there is a proportional “single transferable vote” system). A lot of ward boundaries have changed, and some councillors will win or lose because a line has been drawn in a new place rather than because of their party’s or their own popularity or lack of it. Borough and parliamentary boundaries do not necessarily match but a lot of MPs will be nervously looking at local results in neighbouring districts since the next general election will also be fought on new boundaries. Though the change, overall, potentially gifts the Conservatives around a dozen seats, it could have some unhelpful effects for individual Conservative MPs.

The bulls*** factor is the way parties will spin the results to look a lot better than they are or seem to be. The Conservatives are already telling journalists to expect massive Tory losses; Labour and Lib Dems are talking down the likelihood of large gains. “Victory” is doing better than expected. I recall a particularly sticky year in the Thatcher era when the Conservatives lost many hundreds of council seats. They nonetheless managed to win the then Labour-controlled borough of Wandsworth (and have controlled it ever since). That one local result was spun to represent a historic national electoral victory.

Even if the Labour Party has a disappointing night on Thursday, there could be a Wandsworth moment if they win it back, or capture Worthing (no longer the haunt of aristocratic snobs like Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell but an up-and-coming competitor town to Brighton). The Conservatives could cause shocks by making further inroads into red-wall areas like Chorley and Pendle. The Lib Dems expect to do well in Conservative-facing places but the shock of the night could be the party capturing Hull from Labour.

Those who want to read real national significance into local results will not be diverted by those headline stories but will look instead for clear evidence that Labour has turned the tide of support in former strongholds like Hartlepool, Bolton and Burnley. The Lib Dems will want to see progress in key Tory-Lib Dem marginals like Wimbledon, Wokingham, Esher (in Elmbridge) and South Cambridgeshire.

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The long-term future of the UK is also at stake. If the SNP overcomes the constraints of a proportional electoral system to get an absolute majority in Glasgow and Dundee it will tell us that nationalism is still very potent. And it would make Labour’s hope of winning a UK election outright a forlorn ambition. If Sinn Fein displaces the DUP in Northern Ireland (and the non-sectarian Lib Dem sister party, Alliance, makes big gains) it could break the malign unionist stranglehold over our relations with the EU.

But the biggest short-term impact will be felt at the weekend, when Tory MPs get angry telephone calls from ex-councillors who have just been dumped by their electors after a lifetime of public service and loyal work for the Conservative Party.

These could prove the tipping point for Boris Johnson, provoking a vote of confidence in his leadership – and a subsequent contest to replace him – within weeks.

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