The outcome of the 4 May 2017 local elections could not be clearer: an extraordinary triumph for a Government party; dire results for Labour; an embarrassing non-event for the Lib Dems; total desolation for UKIP; and the SNP facing real opposition for the first time in several years.
When elections were first mooted for the Tees Valley and West Midlands Mayors, few would have believed that any other than Labour candidates would have succeeded in both areas. But both now boast Conservative Mayors. The Conservative net gain of 563 council seats in 2017 was greater than the party’s achievement in the 2015 local elections when almost twice as many seats were contested.
And this scale of success was the result of the party striking deep into Labour territory: net gains of 19 seats in Derbyshire, 11 in Lancashire; 12 in Northumberland and 11 in Cumbria. In addition, the collapse of UKIP delivered some eye-watering Conservative gains in Kent (+24), Lincolnshire (+23) and Norfolk (+15).
For Labour, there really was no consolation: handsome wins in Greater Manchester and Liverpool City region when in Opposition were to be expected, yet they were inflated into great triumphs. It was like watching a drowning man clutching at matchsticks to stay afloat; because they lost so many of the fights that were competitive – marginal territory not buttressed by divisions of tribal voters. For an unprecedented third year in a row the main Opposition party sustained a net loss of council seats.
In Wales, the Labour losses were not as dire as many predicted and the party held on to Cardiff and Newport; but they still lost one-in-five of all the seats they were defending. And in Scotland, Labour lost fully one-third of the seats they were defending as they watched the Conservatives more than double their total number of seats. The June general election is not going to be won in London or Greater Manchester or Liverpool and Labour seems to be struggling badly in those areas where it will be won.
The Lib Dems had hoped that these results would provide rich copy for numerous general election leaflets illustrating how their success in council wards made them powerful challengers to the incumbent party in various parliamentary constituencies. I’m sure the leaflets will still be printed but they will have to be even more inventive in the graphs they use to ‘prove’ their electoral potency if they are based on 4 May 2017 results.
Last year was the first set of local elections since 2008 that the Lib Dems made a net gain in council seats: this year they have fallen back into net losses. It seems they have performed modestly better in areas with a strong Remain vote from the 2016 EU Referendum but this is hardly the electoral dividend Tim Farron was hoping for when he decided to woo Remain voters for all his party was worth. The party improved its share of the BBC’s election night Projected National Share of the vote but they are still well short of the figures they regularly clocked up in the midst of their former Glory Days.
What is there to say about UKIP that does not require reading the Last Rites? Four years ago, when these councils were last contested, they burst across the sky, taking one-quarter of all votes cast, despite standing in only three-quarters of the seats up for election. Their departure appears as dramatic as their arrival.
Whatever the cause of their decline, it has decisively shaped the outcome of the May 2017 election. The Conservatives have benefited much more than any other party. To adapt a petrol advert from my youth, ex-UKIP voters have put the tiger in Mrs May’s tank.
The SNP have managed to defy political gravity for some years: phrasing everything in terms of independence and/or the wickedness of Westminster thwarting their every good intention. It seems the game may be up. The party still dominates Scottish politics and will continue to do so but now there is a whiff of cordite in the air.
The SNP lost their majority in Holyrood in 2016; in 2017, they became the largest party in Glasgow but did not win outright control; and they lost Dundee. The SNP beating up Labour is yesterdays’ news: the startling new reality is that a net loss of seven seats for the SNP, contrasts with a net gain of 164 Scottish council seats by the Conservatives.
We know that local election results have to be swallowed with care: that up to one-in-five people split their ticket between voting in local and general elections. But with that important caveat in mind, there is nothing in the 4 May 2017 local election results that suggests the general election campaign voting intention polls are travelling in the wrong direction.
Conservative strength in the 2017 campaign opinion polls appears to be significantly underpinned by substantial defections from among UKIP voters. Labour seems under threat in ‘safe’ as well as ‘marginal’ areas, having chronically failed to address the views and concerns of white working class voters who faithfully provided the core of the party’s support for so much of its history. The Lib Dems can offer little electoral evidence of the breakthrough in seat gains that they claim are on the cards.
It seems the best Mrs May’s opponents can hope for is the hint from last Thursday’s results, that impressive as they were, they did not constitute evidence of a landslide Conservative victory on 8 June.
By David Cowling, Former Editor, BBC Political Research and visiting senior research fellow at King’s College London.
The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative.