Thursday, May 5, 2022

The local elections will give no clues as to who might win the general election

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History has shown that local elections are often a terrible predictor of what might happen in general elections

For those parts of England that don’t have a local vote on Thursday, the next few days will go largely unnoticed.

Political commentators and reporters, psychologists and talking heads make a lot of local elections, even if the general public hardly notices the annual election day, let alone vote.

Undoubtedly the biggest story of the week will probably be what happens in the Northern Ireland Assembly elections, with every council seat up for grabs in Scotland and Wales.

But how much do local election results serve as a political barometer before the country as a whole goes to the polls in a general election? How much importance should we place on the results of the local ballot box?

Judging by the results of the local elections before the last three general elections, not so much. Take the most recent example, the 2019 general election, in which voters took part in the polls in 248 councils, including 33 metropolitan areas, mostly in the North and Midlands. Both Labor under Jeremy Corbyn and the Tories under Theresa May were on par in the local election results.

Labor kept almost all boroughs in their traditional Red Wall strongholds. Barely seven months later, Mrs May was gone and Boris Johnson romped home with an 80-seat majority and an 11.5 percentage point lead. The Red Wall was smashed.

Going back even further: in local elections, held just weeks before the 2017 snap general election, Ms May had her best result from a local Tory election day in a decade. The Conservatives were 11 points clear of Labor and looked unstoppable. The party won 11 councils and added 563 council seats, while Labor lost seven councils and almost 400 seats in England.

Political wise men predicted Ms May would win a three-digit majority in the general election just a month later. Instead, the lead was shrunk to 2.4 points and the Tories lost their 13-seat majority. It ultimately proved fatal for Ms May and ushered in two years of political turmoil.

And in 2014, when politics were considered more stable, Labor had a lead over the Tories in local elections, albeit a small one to two points. Led by Ed Miliband, Labor won five councils and more than 300 seats. The Tories, on the other hand, lost control of 11 councils and 236 councillors. Mr Miliband was seen as a viable prospect of running the country under a coalition, with political oracles predicting a hanging parliament.

A year later, David Cameron shocked the country when the Tories secured an outright majority of 12, making Mr Cameron the first sitting Prime Minister to increase his share of the vote after a full term since Lord Salisbury in 1900.

This is not to say that local elections are unimportant, quite the opposite. They are a crucial cog in the country’s democracy and will decide how a district will be shaped in the years to come.

They also provide a snapshot of how different parts of the country feel when it comes to day-to-day politics. But don’t expect them to predict the political future, history has shown this to be a foolish endeavor.

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