Who Will Be Britain's Next Prime Minister?
The English local elections suggest a Conservative party defeat after 14 years, but how predictive are they historically? We dig in.
After the chatter about Labour earning their best result since 1995, the news pundits are manically trying to compare it with today’s result while vacillating about whether Starmer is set to become the Blair of post-Brexit Britain? Or, will Sunak prove to be just a short private jet ride away from jamming his little finger into the dam-swell of progressive party uprisings.
The recent mid-term local elections are to the Conservative Party what a bullying report is to Rishi Sunak, best ignored even if they seem to only push the country further from him. The results have put Labour as the largest party in local government for the first time in over 20 years, and led every political commentator and their Queen mother to suggest 2023 is just a 1995 re-run.
The historical precedent of 1995-1997 would suggest that a landslide defeat such as this for the Conservative party is the kind of thing that can bring a near two decade government down like a Met police officer on ‘right to march’ duties, but that’s just one example… How often do local elections actually reflect what voters will do in a General Election? How much can we trust that these results will produce Britain’s 4th Prime Minister in 2 years? Get ready for a lot of statistics - or just pull out your calculator.
The easiest place to start by most logic would be turn to the 1995-97 British Local and General Elections, and consider what they reflect on our understanding of today, but it could prove more useful to explore the most recent data on a change in government. Could it be that the change between the 2014 local elections and 2015 general elections, and Keir Starmer’s recent raw sewage dump of the progressive coalition (bye bye Corbyn), is what is scaring Sir Keir and his merry Labour band the most.
Led by the ever-charismatic, speed-talking Ed Miliband, Labour at the time managed to marginally turn their fortunes around, winning 31% of national vote share in those mid-term elections, just barely above the Conservatives’ 30%. And yet, in just 1 year that split had shifted. The Conservatives overtook Labour, with 37% of the national vote share while Labour remained at around 30%. It delivered them a surprise 12 seat majority, while the local results had implied that a hung parliament was as inevitable as tanks rolling into Kiev - or not. Stay with me…
The demise of Cameron and Clegg’s marriage of convenience surely highlights that local elections cannot predict the general. However, we should not avoid the changing context of that 1 year period. The biggest story out of the 2014 local elections was not Miliband rallying Labour, but Nigel Farage figuring out that the secret to victory in the UK in 2010 was seeing who could harbour the farthest of far right ideologies. His UK Independence Party seized 20% of the local vote share, and became the largest party in the UK’s delegation in the European Parliament. Vive la Mussolini-like revolution!
But where did the 7% vote shift to the Conservative party come from? Well, looking through the results it seems that UKIP managed to pull just 13% of the vote in the 2015 general. Cameron’s concession to his right wingers for the Brexit referendum did the dirty to Farage -ouch- by taking back UKIP voters. Unfortunately it later cost him his job, but you know, you win some- you lose some. Proving that historical context, and political heisting, is important in understanding why the national and the local vote share can, at times, appear not to match up.
Indeed this is clear from the previous election cycle. In 2009 the country was reeling from the financial crash. Tony Blair had finally been brought down by his Iraq war blunders, allowing his printer-throwing number 2 to take charge. Brown hoped to lead Labour through the credit crunch and into a second decade of government. Those local elections seemingly spelled death to Brown’s dream of a 20 year New Labour dynasty. With Labour dropping to less than half the number of councillors in the nation as the Conservatives, John Curtice projected a general election would see the governing party fall to third place with just 23% of the vote, behind the Tories at 38% and Lib Dems at 28%.
The year between seemed to rescue Labour somewhat, but they still lost nearly 100 MPs. In that election Labour and the Lib Dems managed to swap their positions in the previous year’s local elections, while the Conservatives wound up Parliament’s largest party but without an outright majority, a historically rare event the Tories managed to repeat just 7 years later with Theresa-apparently-I’m-in-a-Wheat-Field-May.
The context is a bit fuzzier here, especially as little changed between 2009 and 2010 beyond Brown apologising to a supposed bigot (not spigot). Perhaps the clear reflection from these results is the potential for local elections to represent more of a protest vote than an outright representation of the voting preference. It is likely that the shift of 5% of voters from the Liberal Democrats to Labour reflected voters upset, but unwilling to go full throttle liberal in a national election, rather than Brown somehow doing anything to win Labour voters back. Following this logic, you could conclude that the mass loss of Blue Wall seats in the 2023 local election could return to the Conservatives in a general election. You really just can’t trust a Southerner.
Before the days of Ed Miliband, David Cameron and Nick Clegg, the young and exciting movement in the UK was led by rock star, Tony Blair, and his weird, slightly nerdy sidekick. After 1992 Britain surprisingly voted Conservative again (perhaps because unlike the US they had no Ross Perot to steal right-wing votes) Labour was faced with an identity crisis, Blair rocked in and Old Labour went the way of European Communism. Old Labour collapsed in the early 1990’s, nationalism and neo-liberalism rose in its stead. Out with the old, in with the Elon Musk…
Yet Tony Blair came to save the day, and in 1995 Labour rejoiced that they had seemingly found their man on a white horse. Labour won nearly 2000 councillors, and seized almost half of the nation’s vote share, at 48% to the Conservatives 25% in the local 1995 elections. Even the Lib Dems got in on the party, securing 500 new councillors. It was a veritable political feast on the Tory’s dying corpse. 2 years later, as we have heard from so many these last few weeks, Blair sailed into power, breaking modern records for MPs won, and managing to drop just 3% in the national vote share, capturing 45% of the public to the Conservative’s 30.
The shift of voter sentiment from 1995 to 1997 was slight. The public sentiment was unchanged and the malaise toward Conservative government continued. Labour swept to victory by unprecedented margins.
Today, the issue is that so much has changed politically over 30 years. In 1995 the Conservatives, Lib Dems and Labour combined for 95% of the votes cast, a similar proportion to the general election two years later.
In 2023, despite feeling like we still have a purely two party system, we have seen the influence of minor parties. Since 2015 the SNP consistently controls most, if not all Sottish constituencies. The Liberal Dems have dropped in relevance outside the South, and is starting to see some of their and Labour’s vote share plunge thanks to the upstart Green Party. And in Northern Ireland its anyone’s guess - assuming the MP’s go back to work.
Meanwhile in general elections the Conservatives have consistently been challenged from the right in vote share if not directly through MP’s. Farage’s first challenge to the Tories in 2015 saw them steal 13% of the vote, while his 2019 battle with bestie Boris saw his new Brexit party seize a much more modest 2%.
In this year’s 2023 local election other parties, including the multiple nationalists, Greens and the Brexit successor Reform Party totalled 19% of the vote. The prevalence of the SNP, Plaid Cymru and Irish parties in First Past the Post voting also ensures they make up important elements of Parliamentary equations. What a mess. And someone probably needs to tell our Irish compadres that they can only have so many damn unionists!
Despite the occasional mismatching statistics, its undeniable that there is something about local elections that captures the “jist” of the public mood. In 1995 the direction of the country pointed to a Labour landslide, and even if the numbers were off, the intention was certainly there. 2009 suggested that the Conservatives were on the rise, and while the Lib Dems did not become the new opposition, they were elevated to their first governmental positions in history. 2014 indicated that in spite of a minor Labour bounce back, the country mood had shifted to accept the EU scepticism of Farage and UKIP. In 2015 the Conservatives rode into power using that very Euroscepticism and overcame the small growth in Labour support.
What do the 2023 local elections seem to most strongly scream? People don’t love the Conservatives so much anymore. Sir Kier now has to capitalise and make sure it is a Labour led government that emerges without a coalition partner or two on board. And I think most of all, these local and general elections indicate that feelings really do matter more than expert opinion. I guess Project Fear had something worth saying after all.
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