Labour has done better in these local elections than it might seem

Local elections are nearly always a mixed bag; giving expression to divergent points of view in different areas is part of the point of having local elections at all. But each year has its own broad trend.

In 2018 Labour and the Conservatives were locked in the stalemate that had taken hold in the 2017 general election; in 2019 both main parties were hit by a wave of voter defections and in 2021 the Conservatives carried all before them. The 2022 local elections were Keir Starmer’s first significant endorsement from the electorate.

Labour’s performance was at its most spectacular in London, where few had anticipated the capture of the City of Westminster on top of the more anticipated gains of Barnet and Wandsworth. The impact was magnified because every borough council seat in London was up for election and large numbers of seats changed hands. Many councils in the rest of the country elect a third of their members at a time, so there was a limit to how much could change.

The Conservatives’ strong showing in 2021 will continue to influence these councils until those seats come up for re-election in 2024. Even so, there was the occasional drama such as Labour’s victory in Southampton, or the Lib Dems’ in Hull, which looked impressive even at this slowed-down rate of change.

However, partial elections also allow us to compare how the parties perform from year to year. The swing to Labour since May 2021 was about 6-7% in England outside London, which puts the party a respectable but not overwhelming 3-4 points ahead of the Conservatives if translated into a national share of the vote. It is Labour’s second-biggest lead since 2001, after Ed Miliband’s peak year of 2012.

The Labour advantage in 2022 is perhaps greater than it might seem from the relatively small headline lead in vote share. One reason is that, in contrast to, say, the 2016 or 2014 local elections, the right is more or less united behind the Conservatives rather than split with Ukip. The Tories no longer have that reserve army of voters. The centre-left is divided between Labour, Lib Dem and Green. While this gets in the way of building a solid popular vote lead and winning council seats in these elections, it does give Labour a pool of potentially friendly anti-Tory tactical voters from which to draw.

The other positive sign for Labour is that, at first glance, the votes are appearing where Labour will find them useful. Labour’s support in the 2019 general election was very unhelpfully distributed; on a uniform swing from that result it would take a landslide popular vote of 1997 proportions in order to give Labour a bare majority in the House of Commons. The fairly low swing in the north might be enough, given many of the former “red wall” seats are still marginal; Labour’s showing in southern and eastern marginals such as Ipswich and Southampton Itchen was stronger, and the swing since 2011 was biggest of all in some parts of the Midlands.

Labour was nearly wiped out in Dudley last year, winning three wards against 21 for the Tories. But in 2022 it has won 12, including two wards that were Conservative in 2018. Dudley is home to four traditionally marginal seats that returned huge Conservative majorities in the 2019 general election. If these are back in play, that parliamentary majority looks less impossible. The party will also take comfort from an (anticipated) fair showing in Scotland, where it also needs to make parliamentary gains.

Labour’s poorer results tended to come in areas where the party formed the municipal establishment and gave cause for voters to turn away because of local issues. There was no sole beneficiary, as Tories, Lib Dems, Greens, local parties and independents all benefited: the Conservatives in Tameside, the Lib Dems in Hull, the Greens in South Tyneside and localist parties and independents in wards scattered across the metropolitan north. These losses look serious enough to deny Labour a truly satisfying net gain of seats. But this slippage may not put many parliamentary seats at risk, because it is happening in places where Labour is already the incumbent and it is focused on local rather than national issues.

The Conservatives would therefore be most unwise if they were to take much comfort from the small-looking Labour lead. They might also ponder that in the places where the voters knew they could send a powerful message – Wandsworth, Barnet, Southampton – they did so with alacrity, delivering a hefty swing to Labour. It was a precisely directed jab in the direction of Downing Street.

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