Jeremy Smith – Early reflections on the English local elections

This is our second quick assessment of yesterdays election in England. The first (read here) is by John Weeks.

By Jeremy Smith, co-director, Policy Research in Macroeconomics (PRIME)

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The English local elections – mainly in urban areas and including London – were, on the whole, a slight disappointment to Labour – and maybe a bigger disappointment to some activists who had been optimistic that the Party would sweep if not all, but more before it.

On the results to date (lunch-time Friday) it looks as though the result is more or less mirroring the General Election result of June last year, when Labour did far better than most pundits expected, on a relatively radical manifesto.  Yet at the same time, in some more working class areas in the Midlands and North of England, it did worse than expected, and this cost it the chance to be the largest party in the House of Commons.  In essence, in the General Election, the former UKIP vote collapsed, and on average two-thirds of the ex-UKIP vote went to the Tories, one third to Labour.  But where the UKIP vote had been very high, the share going to the Tories was itself higher.  And on the figures I have seen so far from yesterday, a similar but varied pattern emerges.

But before looking at the picture in a bit more detail, let’s not forget that Labour is the only European social democratic party which is currently riding fairly high in the polls, and not falling back.  Look at Germany, France, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, even Scandinavia, and traditional – more right-wing – social democracy is in sharp decline.  Labour’s turn to the left has proved on balance an electoral plus, not a disadvantage.

On the local elections, the Conservatives are spinning like mad that Labour has done badly and that they have done well.  Yet overall (I write before the Birmingham result which may be disappointing) Labour has been gaining seats, and the Tories losing seats – but neither on the large scale we have seen in previous elections.  The UKIP vote, which was large in many areas in 2014 (the last time these seats were contested) has collapsed to almost nothing.  I have looked at how the UKIP vote has been redistributed in a number of towns in different regions (taking the council area as a whole).  Here are some examples showing the great diversity of outcomes – but on balance favouring the Conservatives:

North East

Sunderland – Lab 47.5%  (+1.2 on 2014)  Con 29.6% (+10.2) Lib Dem 11.6% (+7.9).

No UKIP, which was previously 24.3%. so most of the former UKIP share moved to Con or Lib Dem


Liverpool – Lab 63.7% (+5.6)  Lib Dem 16.6% (+7.2)  Green 9.3% (-1.4)  Con 5.4% (+0.5)

No UKIP, was previously 9.7%.  So it seems some went to Lib Dem, and a smaller share to Lab.

Bury – Lab 48.1% (+4.5)  Con 37.7% (+8.1).

No UKIP, was previously 11.3%.  So nearly two-thirds to Con, one third to Lab.

Rochdale – Lab 52.1% (+6.3)  Con 27% (+6.3).  UKIP 3.9% (-13.2).

So here, the former UKIP share split almost exactly equally between Lab and Con, which is very unusual.

East Midlands

Amber Valley (Derbyshire) – Con 47.4% (+16.5) Lab 41.7% (+3.2) Green 5.8% (+5.8)

No UKIP; was previously 25.3%.  So UKIP vote went two-thirds to Con, the remaining third shared between Greens and Lab

West Midlands

Nuneaton – Con 51% (+21.1)  Lab 35.9% (-5.6%).  UKIP 0.8% (-17.9)

In this case, not only did the entire former UKIP share go to Con, but the Lab share of the vote dropped sharply, i.e. no share of ex-UKIP vote


Basildon – Con 51.3% (+16.3) Lab 23% (+2.2).  Independents received 18%  (previously nearly zero). UKIP 7.2% (-31.8)

In this previously very strong UKIP area, half of the ex-UKIP share went to Con, a very small proportion to Lab.

Oxford – Lab 48% (+5.7) Lib Dem 23.3 (+5.7), Green 14.5% (-5.8) Con 13% (-2.6).

No UKIP; previous share a modest 3%.  Not clear where this share went, but Con share fell.

South West

Plymouth – Con 44.9% (+14.6)  Lab 44.2% (+13.4).  UKIP 2.1% (-29).

The former UKIP share therefore split almost evenly between Con and Lab.

Swindon –  Lab 42.4 (+10.2)  Con 41.4 (+9.1) UKIP 3.9% (-18.1)

Another case where the former UKIP share divided fairly equally between Lab and Con


Turning to London, where UKIP has never succeeded in gaining a significant share of the vote, Labour had high hopes of winning more seats and councils, despite the fact that it had done very well in 2014.  I do not yet have enough data to see how the overall shares of vote compare with 2014, but my assessment is that Labour did quite well in terms of the vote, if not in terms of seats won.

For example, in the Conservative’s flagship borough council of Westminster, Labour came very close in its share of the vote overall.  The Conservative share was 42.8% (+1.8), while Labour’s share rose to 41.1% (+7.6%).  The big losers here were the Greens, who got squeezed back to 4.2% (-9.3).

The Liberal Democrats won back control of the outer London boroughs of Richmond, Kingston and retained Sutton, but elsewhere in London made up little ground lost as a result of their coalition with the Conservatives at national level from 2010 to 2015.

According to the BBC, looking nationwide, the two main parties (Lab and Con) received an almost identical share of the total vote, at 35% each, with the Liberal Democrats doing better than last time at 16%.


For Labour, the overall result is reasonable to good in many areas, but extremely concerning in others, notably where the ex-UKIP vote (in mainly white working class areas) has drifted en masse to the Conservatives.  These areas need to be won back by Labour if it is to form the next government.

If we consider the impact of Brexit on the local election voting and results, it is exceptionally hard to see any particular “footprint”. There is little evidence that Labour’s position to accept Brexit while staying in a customs union has won back very much support, but equally there is little evidence that “remainers” transferred away from Labour in their hundreds of thousands.  True, the Liberal Democrats won in some areas, but these are all its traditional heartlands.

So strategically, Labour faces the hard strategic question – how to maintain a strong progressive set of policies (progressive on economic and social issues) while winning back enough voters in the north and midlands who might be defined  as “social conservatives” but who are also often in areas of economic decline.  There is a separate issue – less tested in these elections, as many of the rural districts did not have elections – about how Labour can win enough votes in smaller towns and villages.

But once again, from a European perspective we must underline that social democracy in Britain is alive and kicking, and electorally successful (if still not quite enough!) – after moving to the left.






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