This Time U.K. Local Elections Really Matter

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Voters in many towns and cities around the U.K. go to the polls Thursday to elect representatives to their local councils. Normally, these local elections are of limited interest to outsiders. They are even of limited interest to most U.K. voters, with turnouts typically around half those seen at general elections.

This time, however, the elections are about more than who is in charge of pub licensing or trash collection. With Prime Minister Theresa May under pressure following the delay to Brexit, those results — and how they are spun — are far more significant than usual.

The districts up for election, across England outside of London, were last contested in 2015, on the day of that year’s general election. That day saw the Conservatives win with an overall majority, their best result in a generation. On the coattails of this, the Tories did similarly well in the local elections.

That sets a high bar for this year. Even if they won similar levels of support to the opposition Labour Party nationally, the Tories would stand to lose seats due to their higher starting point. Given that the Conservatives haven’t been doing nearly as well recently, a loss becomes almost inevitable. And since many of the seats being contested in 2019 have Tory incumbents, the effect in terms of Tory seat losses will be magnified.

If seat changes are misleading, how should we benchmark parties’ performances? As the districts up for election vary in composition — this time they are disproportionately in conservative rural areas — the raw popular vote tells us little. But two models to be published by Professors Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher and by the BBC will estimate what the national popular vote would have been if all areas had been contested.

This Time U.K. Local Elections Really Matter

On these measures, the strong historical pattern is that governing parties do poorly and oppositions do well. This likely reflects swing voters taking the opportunity to give the government of the day a bloody nose, although since these contests are rarely polled, it’s hard to be sure.

Oppositions heading for power typically win by big margins of 10 to 20 percentage points, as Labour did in the mid-1990s and the Conservatives did in the late 2000s. Oppositions heading for defeat at the next general election usually win the estimated popular vote narrowly, as Labour has done in most local elections this decade.

The most widely cited forecast, by Rallings and Thrasher, based on the results of special local elections (those that happen off-cycle) between November and April, suggests a close national popular vote. But given the sharp poll moves against the Conservatives last month, this — as the study’s authors point out — means that the Tories are likely in for a much worse result than the past might suggest.

This may be tempered by the fact that districts in solidly pro-European London and Scotland are not up for election this year, while Northern Ireland — which also voted against Brexit — is contested by a different set of parties. Labour has performed less well in these areas since 2015, although its refusal this week to back a second EU referendum explicitly will cost it fewer votes in the areas being contested, since Brexit’s staunchest opponents live disproportionately elsewhere.

The newly formed anti-Brexit Change UK party will not contest these elections, which removes a potential spoiler for Labour, and for the anti-Brexit Liberal Democrats, who are the main challengers to the Conservatives in a number of affluent rural and suburban areas. But nor is Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party running, which removes a bigger spoiler for the Conservatives. Both will be contenders in the European Parliament elections later this month, a vote that Conservatives are dreading.

The question being asked of the local elections is not whether Labour will win the estimated national popular vote, but by how much. So far, Labour has not, at any point since losing power in 2010, achieved midterm election results that suggest it is an opposition on the brink of regaining power. If that changes this week, the implications for U.K. politics could be substantial.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Matt Singh runs Number Cruncher Politics, a nonpartisan polling and elections site that predicted the 2015 U.K. election polling failure.

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