In an era of peak unpredictability, tomorrow’s local elections offer a limited snapshot of the state of political opinion in the UK.
It is limited on two counts. First, there are no elections in Scotland, Wales or London. In England, full or partial elections are being held in 33 mets, 168 district councils (more than half of which are all-seat contests), 30 unitary authorities and 17 unitaries, plus several mayoral contests.
Second, the two new political parties – Change UK and Brexit Party – did not register in time to be included. That is unfortunate for them given that, just three weeks later, both parties will feature very prominently in the European elections.
Notwithstanding that, tomorrow’s elections will provide insight into several important political pressure points.
Most pressing of these is gauging the future viability of the Conservative Party. It may be 185 years old, but even many hitherto sensible heads wonder whether it can survive.
Friday’s wash-up will focus on comparisons with 2015. That is highly imperfect because four years ago the locals coincided with the General Election, boosting Tory fortunes as twice as many voters as usual (65%) took part.
In 2015, the Tories gained 28 councils, mostly from NOC, as well as 504 additional council seats. Labour, in contrast, lost 238 councillors, while the post-Coalition Liberal Democrats lost 415. UKIP won an additional 112 councillors.
Rallings and Thrasher forecast that those gains will be reversed with the Tories losing between 500 and 1000 seats. However, given that postal ballots will have hit doormats at around the time when ComRes published the lowest Tory Westminster vote share of any pollster since 1997 (23%), it seems reasonable to expect Tory losses to be at the upper limit of this range – or higher.
The Lib Dems will be looking to recover their losses and then some. Their target is to beat Labour in gains by at least 2:1 which, if achieved, will give them cause for optimism against Change UK in the Euros.
UKIP are contesting only 16% of all seats, down from 44% in 2015, so can expect to take a hammering – which, in turn, will be well received by the Brexit Party as it attempts to mop up the Eurosceptic vote on 23 May.
Turnout will be especially important tomorrow. There is good evidence that the public is both more enraged and disengaged than ever and low turnout tomorrow will be counterbalanced by high turnout in the Euros as voters treat those as an invitation to deliver their verdict on the failure of the political system to deliver Brexit.
A final word on Labour’s prospects: a party that has been in opposition for almost a decade should have at least twice as many councillors as the party in government. Tony Blair achieved that in the mid-90s, as did David Cameron after him. Yet Labour under Jeremy Corbyn has almost 3,000 fewer councillors than the Conservatives under Theresa May. If Labour’s popularity is that meagre when its competition is led by the most unpopular leader in the Conservative Party’s history, it speaks volumes about the Party’s readiness for government.
*This article was first written as a Local Government Information Unit briefing