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Mismanaging expectations and a set of strangely comforting results

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LGC’s second briefing of the day on the local elections

As the final few local election results trickle in it’s not been so much “oooohhhhh, Jeremy Corbyn”, as the chant goes, but “oh dear, Jeremy Corbyn”. Or at least that is how it feels to many both inside and outside the party.

Before the elections there were high hopes about Labour’s chances of improving on their, admittedly already high, benchmark from 2014.

Writing for LGC a month ago, professors Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher said “Labour could make 200 gains” across the country but warned “a major shift is required for it to win flagship Tory London boroughs”. On that last point they were certainly right – Labour lost ground in boroughs like Barnet LBC while fanciful hopes of taking control Kensington & Chelsea RBC, Westminster City Council and Wandsworth LBC never materialised. But as soon as the first few results came in overnight the prediction of Labour gaining an extra 200 seats never looked in danger of being realised. As it stands, Labour are up 60 seats nationwide, while the Conservatives are down 15.

Leftwing bloggers and commentators soon saw the way the wind was blowing overnight as they were at pains to suggest elements of the ‘right-wing press’ had talked up Labour’s chances in the run-up to the election in the hope of shocking Tory voters into action. If that’s the case, it would appear to have worked. However, that also ignores headlines like this in the Times from 6 April: ‘Labour will fail to live up to expectations in May local elections.’

In a blog on the eve of the elections LabourList editor Sienna Rodgers said Labour was “aiming high” with its attempts to win places like Wandsworth and Westminster but stressed these were “targets, not expectations”.

However, there were many across the political divide who agreed that Labour had, quite simply, failed to manage expectations well enough in advance whereas the Conservative party had repeatedly played down its chances in these elections leaving its members feeling far more chipper today.

Earlier, London mayor Sadiq Khan said Labour had “made even more progress” and the party was “heading for our best result in the capital since 1971”. He added: “This is another key stepping stone for London Labour in the continual progress we’ve been making since 2014 in local, mayoral, and general elections – and paves the way for more progress in the future.”

This, however, is not the narrative being played out in the media. As politics professor Philip Cowley from the Queen Mary University of London tweeted: “In both Westminster and Wandsworth, Labour did better (in seats) than at any election since 1986. To have managed to so misjudge the politics of the election that this is presented as a bad result is quite spectacular.”

While the Conservatives will feel relieved at the fact they have generally managed to hold firm, losing control of Trafford MBC has left the party with a bitter taste in the mouth.

As it turns out the only party that can possibly be pleased with themselves is the Liberal Democrats, even if they did start from an incredibly low base – indeed, the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg said earlier (admittedly before the full results were known) that, at the current rate, it would take 60 years for the Lib Dems to get back to their high-water mark.

There were low expectations too about the piloting of voter ID in Bromley LBC, Woking, Gosport, Swindon, and Watford BCs. However, the fatalist fears did not appear to materialise even if widespread scepticism that such a process will be good for democracy remains.

So, what has actually changed as a result of these elections?

On the face of it very little, although Ukip has been almost wiped out. That has led both the Conservatives and Labour to try and make the most of it, just as elections guru Sir John Curtice predicted at the beginning of the week.

But in the grand scheme of things the truth is that, just as Theresa May repeatedly chanted about a year ago (albeit in relation to social care policy), nothing has changed. Well not much anyway.

About mid-afternoon today there had been 39 Tory holds, 58 Labour holds, and three Liberal Democrat holds. Meanwhile, there had been a grand total of eight gains: four for the Conservatives (Barnet LBC, Peterborough City Council, and Basildon and Redditch BCs), two for Labour (Kirklees Metropolitan Council, Plymouth City Council), and three for the Lib Dems (Richmond upon Thames LBC, South Cambridgeshire DC, and Three Rivers DC). And - it appears at the time of writing - the Lib Dems will take Kingston upon Thames RBC.

Professor Thrasher earlier translated the results into what it could mean for a general election for Sky News. His number-crunching showed it would essentially result in yet another hung parliament. Joy. However, given the fact there has been such a seismic fallout each time the country has gone to the polls in the last couple of years there is actually something strangely comforting about this set of results.

By David Paine, acting news editor

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