Local elections: The main parties punished

A woman at a polling station with her toddlerImage copyright Getty Images

It was a bad night for the Conservatives and for Labour, while the Lib Dems, Greens and independents prospered, writes Prof John Curtice and colleagues on the BBC’s local elections team.

“A plague on both your houses.” That seems to have been the key message to emerge from the ballot boxes.

As expected the Conservatives fell back. They were defending seats that were mostly last up for grabs four years ago, on the same day that David Cameron won the 2015 general election. That, coupled with the party’s recent freefall in the polls, seemed to augur significant Conservative losses.

And so it proved to be the case when the first ballot boxes were opened overnight. By morning the party had lost well over 350 seats, with the prospect of further losses when more results are declared later on Friday.

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Across a sample of nearly 500 wards where the BBC collected detailed voting figures, the party’s share of the vote was down on average by six percentage points since 2015 – and equally importantly also by six points since last year.

Even so, these figures were not as dire as might have been anticipated given the fall in the party’s standing in the polls, where it is currently some 13 points down on where it was this time last year.

However, Labour also found itself slipping back – on average by one point as compared with its rather poor performance in 2015, and by no less than six points as compared with its rather better performance last year. As a result, the party has also found itself suffering net losses of some 80 seats so far – and headline-grabbing losses of council control in Bolsover, Hartlepool and the Wirral.

The party’s performance would seem to confirm the message of a number of polls that Labour’s support has been slipping in the wake of the Brexit impasse. The party lost ground more heavily in Leave-voting areas than in Remain-voting ones, a pattern that it shared with the Conservatives.

What the two parties also had in common was a tendency for their support to fall more heavily in their heartlands. Labour’s vote fell back most heavily in the north, the Conservatives in the south. Equally, Labour’s vote fell more heavily in wards where it was previously strong, while the Conservative vote fell most heavily where they were strongest.

It was as though voters vented their frustration with the Brexit process by punishing whichever party represented the political establishment locally.

This mood perhaps also helps account for the remarkable success of independent candidates. Those who eschewed standing on a party label were on average winning as much as a quarter of the vote. By the morning, over 220 more independent councillors had been elected.

Meanwhile the Liberal Democrats, who before they entered into coalition with the Conservatives in 2010 were often a vehicle for protest votes, also appear to have profited from voters’ disenchantment with the two largest parties.

Given that in 2015 the party recorded its worst ever local election performance, it was little surprise that the party made gains. More important, perhaps, was the fact that its vote was also up a couple of points on last year’s local elections and, above all, that it advanced most strongly in places where its starting point gave it some chance of winning.

However, what was missing was any sign of the party performing better in pro-Remain rather than in pro-Leave areas – suggesting that the party’s pro-Remain stance on Brexit may not have played that central a role in its advance.

At the same time, the Greens also put in what looks set to be one of their best local election results ever. They posted an average of 11% of the vote in the wards they contested, up four points on its performance where it also stood four years ago. The party may have been helped by the recent protests about climate change.

Fighting just one in six wards, there was little opportunity for UKIP to make much impact on these elections. Where it did stand the party’s vote was down by three points on its relative high point of 2015, but up eight points on its poor position last year. The challenge from the Eurosceptic parties may well be more formidable in the European elections in three weeks when Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party is on the ballot paper.

About this piece

This analysis piece was commissioned by the BBC from an expert working for an outside organisation.

Sir John Curtice is professor of politics at Strathclyde University, senior fellow at NatCen Social Research and The UK in a Changing Europe. He is also chief commentator at WhatUKthinks.org.

He worked with Stephen Fisher, associate professor of political sociology, University of Oxford; Robert Ford, professor of politics, University of Manchester and Patrick English, associate lecturer in data analysis, University of Exeter.

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