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Rallings and Thrasher: lack of action provided plenty of opportunity for spin

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Election counts that began late Thursday night and in some cases were not concluded until Sunday afternoon provided plenty of scope for party spinners to weave their magic words. 

Variously, it appears, these elections (select carefully from the broad range on offer across the UK) were great/terrible for (name of party here) and signified that (choose name of own party or rival party leader) should resign immediately and make way for some fresh thinking.

Bristol mayor

Bristol mayor

To be fair, the English council elections struggled for attention. This was partly because they were largely bracketed by the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly elections as Friday dawned, and the London mayor and Assembly as midnight struck.

It did not help the cause that few headlines were being generated – many councils showed little or no re-distribution of seats, as reflected in the table of gains and losses.

Summary of council seat gains and losses 
Party  Seats 
Conservatives -51
Labour -11
Liberal Democrats 41
Other 21

The pre-election focus had been placed squarely upon how well or badly Labour would perform under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. Some absurd claims, mostly from within the party itself, were made regarding the hundreds of seat gains the party of Opposition should be expected to make in ‘normal circumstances’.

This spin deliberately ignored the need to compare the situation in 2016 with that in 2012, when these particular seats were last fought and Ed Miliband’s party had reached what would be its pinnacle of achievement in the last parliament.

In the event, Labour did lose seats but not as many as might have been expected from its by-election performances earlier in the year. Its loss of control of Dudley hinged on losing a few wards by extremely close margins of the sort where its campaigners are probably extremely frustrated by ‘supporters’ who vowed they would turn out to vote but then found something more pressing to do instead.

For some time, therefore, Labour was seen to be losing seats and council control which some sections of the media were determined to proclaim.

Summary of council gains and losses 
Party Councils 
Conservatives  -2
Labour  -
Liberal Democrats 1
No overall control 1

Based on an analysis of almost two million local votes in more than a fifth of all wards our estimate of the national equivalent vote undertaken for The Sunday Times places Labour on 33%, one point ahead of the Conservatives. At last year’s general election Labour’s deficit was seven percentage points.

This is progress, therefore, but it did not satisfy Corbyn’s detractors that his current direction of travel will harm Labour’s cause in the long run. Indeed, a more forensic consideration of each council’s voting figures does highlight some cause for concern in Labour ranks.

Council control 
Con gain from NOC
Peterborough City Council 
Lab gain from NOC
Bristol City Council
Lib Dem gain from NOC
Watford BC
NOC gain from Con
Elmbridge BC
Worcester City Council
NOC gan from Lab
Dudley MBC

Across the metropolitan boroughs Labour’s vote fell by five percentage points compared with its showing in 2012, but there were some declines more than that in Bolton, Knowsley and Rotherham MBCs and Gateshead Council.

The pattern in the unitary and district council areas was a little better but even here Labour’s vote is being squeezed in key council areas such as Derby, Hull and Plymouth city councils, Amber Valley BC, Cannock Chase DC, Harlow DC, Hull, Nuneaton and Bedworth BC, Stevenage BC and Tamworth BC. These are precisely the places where Labour’s campaigning effort should be advancing if the party is to have any realistic expectation of winning the 2020 general election.

The Conservative’s dominance of local government is diminished and with next year bringing a reprise of the shire county elections there is scope for further losses

The Conservative party can consider itself fortunate that the victories it secured in the Scottish Parliament were seldom set alongside disappointments elsewhere. Although it would eventually emerge that the party had made net losses it was the prime minister’s whistlestop visit to Peterborough that had media appeal.

Local elections 2016 one use

Local elections 2016 one use

It is a moot point whether this was a genuine ‘gain’ at all since the re-constructed boundaries favoured the party sufficiently to tip it into the Conservative column before a vote had been cast. Interestingly, the Conservative loss of control of Worcester City Council also hinged on the outcome of a single ward. Defeat at the hands of the Green candidate (one of its few successes nationally) in the battle for Battenhall resulted in a hung council.

Broader still, the party’s dominance of local government is diminished and with next year bringing a reprise of the shire county elections there is scope for further losses.

But the party best placed to unsettle the Conservatives is still open to question. The 2016 elections marked a significant moment for the Liberal Democrats whose 14% meant they finished ahead of Ukip (on 12%) for the first time since 2012. Appearances can be deceptive, however. In a majority of places the party’s vote fell.

Although the Liberal Democrats did make a net gain of seats there is virtually no sign of a return to the days when it was automatically the party of choice for protest voters. Its achievement in making gains mostly reflects its long-standing ability to target vulnerable wards in places such as Cheltenham BC and Watford Council.

Ukip needed another ‘Thanet’ moment but it was denied its headline by a single vote

With Ukip focusing its energies into a successful capture of seats both in the Welsh and London Assemblies its performance in the English election has rather been overlooked. True, it was not nearly as impressive as the surge in support it produced in 2013 and the year following but there is progress nevertheless.

But, as with the general election, the party is amassing votes but failing to translate that support into seats. Vote share jumped by seven points overall but gains of only thirty seats resulted. The party needed another ‘Thanet’ moment but it was denied its headline by a single vote. After three re-counts the Little Thurrock Blackshots ward fell to the Conservatives. Had it gone to Ukip the party would have become the largest party on the hung council.

Labour made a clean sweep of the four mayoral contests. Sadiq Khan becomes the first London mayor to win an absolute majority (50.5%) when both first and second votes are taken into account. Nevertheless, even here the distribution of second preference votes belied the reality of what was clearly a two-horse race and where the voting rules eliminate all other candidates following the first round of voting. Approximately one in 10 of the second preference votes cast in the election were re-distributed.

 

Mayoral contests 
Bristol City Council Lab gain from Ind
Liverpool City Council Lab hold
London Lab gain from Con
Salford City Council Lab hold

The pattern in Bristol was only slightly better with one in seven second votes transferred to the incumbent mayor and his Labour successor. Referendum voters in Torbay Council decided to vote for the abolition of a directly elected mayor (although they will still have to grapple with the supplementary vote when selecting police and crime commissioners) but the decision will not be implemented until 2019.

Turnout reached 46% for the high-profile London mayoral contest but elsewhere it remains little changed from the 31% that participated four year ago. Electoral apathy on this occasion cannot be blamed on a shortage of candidates with just under four candidates competing for each vacancy.

 

 CouncilsConLabLDInd/OtherNatNOCTotal 
London 9 21 1 0 0 1 32
Mets 2 29 0 0 0 5 36
Counties 16 1 0 0 0 10 27
Districts 143 30 6 1 0 21 201
Unitaries 21 19 0 0 0 15 55
England 191 100 7 1 0 52 351
Wales 0 10 0 2 1 9 22
Engl and Wales 191 110 7 3 1 61 373
Scotland 0 5 0 3 2 22 32
GB 191 115 7 6 3 83 405

 

 CouncillorsConLabLDInd/OtherNat 
London 608 1062 115 66   1851
Mets 395 1720 178 126   2419
Counties 937 377 240 257   1811
Districts 5239 1588 845 898   8570
Unitaries 1305 1145 300 351   3101
England 8484 5892 1678 1698 0 17752
Wales 107 566 68 338 175 1254
Engl and Wales 8591 6458 1746 2036 175 19006
Scotland 118 393 76 215 421 1223
GB 8709 6851 1822 2251 596 20229
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Readers' comments (1)

  • Is it worth adding that areas which only had PCC elections (with no local election) appear to have had low turnout and a high number of spoilt ballots?

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