2018 local election analysis by David Cowling

Independent analyst David Cowling looks how the 2018 local election results compare with 4 years ago.

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  • David Cowling Independent Political Analyst
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This article has been written independently by David Cowling and does not necessarily reflect the views of Ipsos MORI.

The Conservatives got off lightly; Labour’s overall performance was mediocre; and the Lib Dems tried hard to project a few spectacular localised results into a national revival.

The Conservatives sustained their smallest net loss of council seats since entering government in 2010, after a year in which their performance that can hardly be described as competent, let alone stellar. Labour made net gains for the first time in four years but a seriously underwhelming number that was only just ahead of the Lib Dem total.

Net gains/losses of seats in annual local elections
Year Con Lab Lib Dem Others Total seats
2014 -236 +324 -310 +233 4,262
2015 +539 -201 -419 +55 9,352
2016 -48 -18 +45 +21 2,782
2017 +563 -382 -42 -139 2,369
2018 -33 +77 +75 -119 4,404

The London boroughs provided some 40% of all the seats up for election in 2018, yet they accounted for 56% of all Conservative seats lost and 49% of all the seats Labour gained. The Lib Dems have claimed that the results indicate the beginnings of a national revival for their party. However, such a view becomes harder to sustain when one realises that a mere four out of the 150 councils with elections on 3 May (Hull, Kingston, Richmond and South Cambridgeshire) delivered 50% of the party’s total seat gains in 2018.

Compared with the BBC’s 2014 projection, in 2018 the Conservatives were up six points, Labour up four and the Lib Dems up three. This slight swing to the Conservatives helps explain why, excluding London, the Conservatives made a net gain of around 50 seats in the 118 councils polling elsewhere in England on 3 May. The two-point drop in Lib Dem support, compared with one year ago, sits somewhat uneasily in a narrative of national recovery, however modest.

National Equivalent Vote Share
  Con Lab Lib Dem
  % % %
2014 29 31 13
2015 35 29 11
2016 30 31 15
2017 38 27 18
2018 35 35 16

In the following table, I have simply calculated the number of councils on 3 May 2018 where each of the three main parties made net gains or net losses. It is a crude measurement but, in its modest way, I think it tells part of the story of 2018.

Number of councils where parties made net gains or net losses of seats in 2018
    Conservative Labour Lib Dems
  Number Gains Losses Gains Losses Gains Losses
London 32 7 20 20 7 5 5
Mets. 34 14 7 14 12 8 10
Unitaries 17 9 4 9 6 4 4
Shire Districts 67 32 22 22 15 22 11
Total 150 62 53 65 40 39 30

We can see, once again, how London played a disproportionate part in overall Conservative losses and in Labour gains. Also, that Labour lost seats in almost as many Metropolitan Districts as those in which it gained them. And for the Lib Dems, the balance of gains and losses, by this measure, only tilts narrowly towards the former when the Shire Districts are included.

The outcome of the 2018 local elections suggested a deadlock among the main parties that mirrored the national voting intention opinion polls. But that still leaves us with the issue that has monotonously stalked British politics for a year: why on earth is there a political logjam when the Opposition parties ought to be kicking the Conservatives all over the field?

The choice of councils available for Jeremy Corbyn to visit in order to celebrate a Labour gain from the Conservatives was very limited outside London and non-existent within it. He chose to go to Plymouth where Labour won control by gaining four seats, one of them from the Conservatives. However, compared with 2014, the increase in Labour’s share of the Plymouth-wide vote in 2018 was 13.4%, slightly less than the 14.6% increase in the Conservative vote there over the same period.

How much worse do the Conservatives have to become before voters turn to Labour in sufficient numbers to transform our political landscape? This question will not go away until the ugly baby contest that passes for contemporary British politics is resolved.

David Cowling is an independent Political Analyst.

The author(s)

  • David Cowling Independent Political Analyst

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