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Don’t be fooled by Brandon Lewis and John McDonnell

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Commentary on predictions for this year’s local elections

To suggest to a national audience that these are local elections about local issues is often seen as eccentricity on a par with running Royston Vasey’s local shop for local people.

However, the success or failure of local politicians will often hinge upon the political skills of their national leader (although the fact that some councillors will win elections does admittedly go some way to undermine this argument).

And, of course, we will get some of our favourite national politicians spinning late-night national conclusions in the TV studios about the trends shown by local voting patterns.

It was to assist journalists to cut through the spin that the Political Studies Association and Institute for Government yesterday held a briefing featuring legendary psephologist Sir John Curtice (up there with LGC’s very own Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher in the pantheon of psephology) about Thursday’s polls.

Sir John gave the stats that underpin this year’s contests. All 32 London boroughs have whole council elections, alongside 34 metropolitan districts, 17 unitaries and 67 districts (the vast majority of which all have a third of councillors up for election). And one city region and five councils have mayors up for election.

This year’s elections have a distinctly urban flavour. Of the 4,410 seats (including by-elections) up for election, 2,278 are Labour held. Just 1,365 are Conservative. Perhaps trumping even this in significance, the most telling stat is that of all the seats up for election, 42% of them are in London.

As Sir John noted, some of the commentariat have been saying for some time that Labour would walk these elections. The tone of his briefing was, well of course they probably should in many places.

He predicted that both Labour and the Conservatives could gain votes, assisted by an imploding Ukip and the two main parties’ improved position in the opinion polls. The Tories have gained 10 points and Labour six in national average polls since 2014, both largely at Ukip’s expense.

There has been much water under the bridge since June 2014 when these seats were last fought. In Sir John’s words: “This is before David Cameron won a general election, before an EU referendum and before Theresa May lost the Cameron majority.”

Since then Brexit has rapidly developed an existing fission on politics based on prosperity and opportunity. London (60:40 favouring remain) has become increasingly Labour; the rest of the country (55:45 pro-leave) has swung to a lesser degree to the Conservatives.

To show the level of relationship between Brexit allegiance and voting, in last year’s county elections, the most remain fifth of wards saw a swing to the Conservatives of (only) 6.9% compared to a whopping 15.5% in the most leave fifth of wards.

Sir John sought to make sense of polls conducted over the course of this campaign which have shown Labour doing well in the capital but an overall national swing to the Conservatives. In particular he cited a Queen Mary University of London poll which he said showed Labour on 52% in the capital and the Tories on 31%. Nationally he put the Tories on 41% and Labour on 40%, with the Lib Dems on 8%, the same as in 2014.

“Provincial England is much bigger than London. If the polls are right, the worse the Tories are doing in London, the better they are doing elsewhere,” said Sir John.

It is the perception that Labour is somehow less firmly behind Brexit that is apparently doing much to win over much of London’s electorate.

However, it is far from clear that it will translate into many new Labour councils. Labour is pretty close to a high watermark in its success in London.

Barnet LBC should be winnable with a 1.6% swing – assuming Jeremy Corbyn’s failure to deal decisively with antisemitism within Labour does not deter too much of the population of a borough with, proportionately, the largest Jewish population.

Beyond Barnet, it would take a 7.5% swing for Labour to gain both Hillingdon LBC (whose electorate were only 44% remain) and Wandsworth LBC (75% remain). The next most winnable is Westminster City Council, requiring a 8.8% swing (69% remain). As Sir John noted the latter two boroughs – with Thatcherite, low tax recent histories – have assumed almost iconic reputations within local government Tories. He was sceptical about whether Labour could win them.

Outside of London, if the relationship between referendum and election voting holds true Labour may be disappointed. Of its top targets, Dudley MBC is just 32% remain (although the implosion of Ukip does open up winnable seats), Plymouth City Council is 40% remain, Amber Valley BC is 40% remain and Walsall MBC is 32% remain. However, Trafford MBC, where Labour need two seats to deny Tory leader Sean Anstee control, was 58% remain.

Indeed, the Tories may find themselves looking at council gains. They only need one seat for victory in Peterborough City Council (39% remain) and Rugby BC (43% remain) and three seats on Basildon BC (31% remain, but with Ukip seats up for grabs).

Sir John predicted the national Conservative party chairman and Labour shadow chancellor could be in BBC studios early on Friday morning, one talking about the miracle of a governing party winning any new councils and the other suggesting that success in London would be a forerunner of a general election victory.

“Don’t be fooled by Brandon Lewis and John McDonnell,” he stated.

Nick Golding, editor, LGC

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