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Victory at the next general election is still all to play for

(Alamy)

4 min read

Last week was by any metric a bad one for the Conservative party.

The 2023 local elections were one of the worst ever for an incumbent government: over a thousand Tory councillors were defeated, and the party lost control of 48 councils. Most of the elections took place in blue-leaning areas, which left the Conservatives more exposed, but the news is no better if we use the BBC’s projected national share, which estimates how the result would look if the whole country had voted in accordance with the patterns seen last Thursday. The Conservatives managed just 26 per cent on this measure, one point over their all-time low.

While voters delivered a crushing rebuke to the government, the spoils of victory were widely shared. Labour gained over 500 seats and control of 22 councils; the Liberal Democrats took an extra 400 seats and a dozen councils; and the Greens posted best ever local election performance, winning 240 wards and taking majority control of a council (mid Suffolk) for the first time ever.

Running to the right does not look like a winning strategy

The fragmentation of the vote means government retreat did not on this occasion translate into opposition dominance – Labour’s projected lead of nine points over the Conservatives was the largest of this period in opposition, but the party’s vote share of 35 per cent was mediocre by historical standards, and well behind the shares achieved by Tony Blair when he was opposition leader in the mid-1990s.

The fragmentation of the opposition vote can be viewed two ways. It could be bad news for Labour if the advance of the Liberal Democrats and Greens reflects a lack of enthusiasm for the opposition among voters fed up with the government. Or it could be bad news for the government if it reflects an electorate so motivated by anti-incumbent sentiment that they will back whichever party seems best placed to evict the Conservatives locally. The balance of evidence points to the latter interpretation. The Conservatives did worse in wards they were defending, and in authorities which elect their councillors annually by “thirds”, the party which placed second in Conservative wards last year did consistently better this year. It seems an anti-incumbent mood is broad.

There was also evidence that the Brexit divide in voter behaviour may be weakening, in particular when we compare this year’s local results with those from May 2021, when Brexit polarisation was at its peak. Labour has made much larger advances on their showing two years ago in the wards estimated to have the highest Leave vote share in 2016; conversely the Conservatives have fallen back more in strongly Leave areas than more Remain leaning wards.

Does a bad local election bruising presage general election defeat? That is unclear. Keir Starmer’s advantage this time is not as decisive as that held by David Cameron and Tony Blair during the years prior to election victory. The Conservatives have recovered before from mid-term drubbings. They fell even lower, to a projected 25 per cent, in 2013 and yet recovered to win a majority two years later. But the big winners in that set of local contests were UKIP, who mobilised right wing voters the Conservatives proved able to squeeze in a general election. There is no squeezable right wing vote now. UKIP’s successor Reform UK stood in only a small minority of wards, and flopped where they appeared.

Running to the right does not look like a winning strategy when the government is leaking votes and seats to three parties on the centre and the left. That suggests the coming general election, like many of those fought before Brexit shook up politics, will be won and lost in the centre ground.

 

Robert Ford, professor of political science at Manchester University and co-author of The British General Election of 2019

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