Making sense of Thursday night
It is now possible to make sense of Thursdayâ€™s local election results. The projected vote shares for the three main parties, according to Rallings and Thrasher in the Sunday Times, were CON 39%, LAB 26%, LD 25%.
This analysis covers more wards than that carried out for the BBC on election night, and produces a much more plausible figure for minor parties and independents (10%, as opposed to the BBCâ€™s perennial 6-7%). It can therefore be regarded as authoritative.
Subject to legal challenge, Labour made a net loss of 319 seats, the Conservatives a net gain of 316, the Lib Dems a net gain of 2, the British National Party a net gain of 28, the Greens a net gain of 20, and Respect a net gain of 13. What does this mean?
Firstly, Labour performed extremely badly. A loss of 319 was worse than expected, at least till very recently. The fact that Labour were able successfully to downplay expectations does not alter this, any more than the downplaying of expectations by the Conservatives in 1996 altered the fact that their results in that year were appalling. Labourâ€™s losses in London (182) were worse than the 150 or so that I had expected.
Significantly, Labour managed an overall net loss of 4 seats in the Metropolitan Boroughs outside London. Given how bad the results were for them in 2004, when these seats were last contested, they ought to have expected to regain some ground; they failed to do so.
In addition, Labourâ€™s projected vote share, 26%, is the worst achieved by any governing party in living memory, at this stage of the electoral cycle. By way of comparison, John Majorâ€™s Conservatives achieved a projected vote share of 31% in 1993, a few months after crashing out of the ERM.
Unless something dramatic happens (for example Tony Blair standing down within the next few months), Labour can expect to poll significantly worse than this in the next two years. This will enable the Liberal Democrats to make gains in those parts of the country where they have established themselves as the main challengers to Labour (principally Northern urban boroughs) , as well as producing sweeping Conservative gains elsewhere.
Disturbingly, it will enable the British National Party to pull off big gains in the many seats where it achieved a close second place behind Labour on Thursday.
Labour now has barely 6,000 councillors nationwide, its lowest number since the late 1970â€™s. That number could be reduced to fewer than 5,000 by the time of the next election, placing them in the same position as the Conservatives in the run up to the 1997 general election.
The Conservatives undoubtedly polled well on Thursday night. Both the number of net gains, and overall vote share, were at the top end of expectations. Most of their gains in London were expected (although Ealing was a bolt from the blue), although the scale of their victories, in boroughs like Bexley, Hammersmith and Fulham, and Croydon, was much greater than most people had anticipated. It is likely that by next year, the Conservativesâ€™ projected vote share will exceed 40%.
However, two points must be noted. Firstly, the Conservativesâ€™ advance was largely confined to parts of the country that showed above-average swings to the party at the last general election. 11 out of the 15 councils gained by the Conservatives were in London and the South. And of the 316 net gains, 134 came in London, and 96 in the South of England and East Anglia. The North of England produced a Conservative net gain of 22 seats.
Secondly, the Conservatives have not come close to eliminating the Liberal Democrats as the natural choice for those who are dissatisfied with Labour, in much of the country.
The Liberal Democrats had a very mixed night. A net gain of 2 seats masks strikingly good performances in boroughs like Brent, Haringey, and Camden, and strikingly bad performances in boroughs like Lambeth, Islington, and Winchester. While they will be obviously disappointed at not making an advance, they can take heart from the fact that the events of January have not really damaged their support at local level, and from the prospect of serious gains from Labour next year.
Several of the minor parties continued to advance strongly. The Greens now have close to 100 councillors overall, and may be not be many years from winning control of their first local authority, such as Oxford. They are now a real force in Lewisham, and have a real following now among the urban Left.
The British National Party made their expected breakthrough in Barking and Dagenham. They are also advancing relentlessly in boroughs like Stoke, Sandwell and Burnley. Even in Bradford, where they made a net loss, they came a very close second in seven seats, and will be well placed to capitalise on Labour unpopularity.
Respect perhaps did slightly less well than expected. However, the growing Muslim population of East London and Birmingham must give them the chance to win seats steadily in those areas over the years to come. UKIP only won one seat, but achieved a number of good votes in individual boroughs, and should be able to gain seats if they can learn how to fight local elections.
Sean Fear is a Tory activist in London and writes a regular local election commentary for PB.C