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The local elections may not be the Tory bloodbath many expect

3 min read

The local elections on 5 May have been billed as a vital test of the Conservatives’ popularity.

Will they suggest that the “partygate” allegations have damaged the party so severely that MPs are persuaded they should remove Boris Johnson from Downing St? Or will they demonstrate that voters have now become tired of the story and have moved on?

However, it is doubtful whether the local elections will provide as clear an answer as widely seems to be assumed.

In England, most of the seats being contested in this year’s round of local elections were last fought over in May 2018. The political backdrop was very different from the December 2019 general election. Theresa May was in Downing St, dealing with the damage done to her authority by her failure to secure an overall majority the previous June. The Conservatives were only narrowly ahead in the polls – and the BBC’s projection of the parties’ local election performances suggested the two parties were neck and neck.

Thus, even if the seven-point lead that Labour currently enjoys in the polls is reflected in local ballot boxes, this would produce no more than a three to four point swing – enough to produce some Conservative losses but not huge headline gabbing tallies.

Other features of this year’s elections point in the same direction. Not everywhere in England is voting – and the places where there is an election are disproportionately Labour territory. All of London is voting, and the capital is now very much a Labour city. The party already controls 21 of its 32 boroughs. The Conservatives are defending just seven, of which just two, Barnet and Wandsworth, are seemingly at serious risk.

Meanwhile, even outside of London, Labour are defending slightly more councils (41) than the Conservatives (39). Moreover, in most of these councils only one-third of the seats are up for grabs, thereby limiting the chances that council control might change hands. The Conservatives look vulnerable in Southampton as does their position in Newcastle-under-Lyme where, exceptionally, all the councillors are up for election.

It is doubtful whether the local elections will provide as clear an answer as widely seems to be assumed

Elections are also being held in Scotland and in Wales – for all seats in all councils. In both countries, the last election was not in 2018, but 2017 – just weeks before Theresa May fatefully called the 2017 election because the polls suggested she was on course for a large overall majority. That mood was reflected in a particularly strong advance in Scotland, where the party almost doubled its share of the vote from 13 per cent to 25per cent.

Consequently, in Scotland the Conservatives are defending a high-water mark. However, local elections in Scotland are conducted using the single transferable vote form of proportional representation, which means that losses of support have much less impact on a party’s seats tally – while none of Scotland’s parties currently control a single council. Meanwhile, even the six-point advance that the Conservatives recorded last time in Wales still only gave it control of one council – Monmouth – albeit that gain now looks vulnerable.

That said, what could be at risk for the Conservatives north of the border is the position they have enjoyed since 2016 as Scotland’s second largest party. The polls currently put the Conservatives four points behind Labour – although both still trail the SNP who would hope to improve on what proved to be an unexpected failure to increase their vote tally last time around.

Mr Johnson is often regarded as a lucky politician. He certainly looks lucky in being faced with a test on 5 May which looks much less hard than many of his opponents might wish.

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