“Who’s going to empty the bins for the next four years?” was how Professor Sir John Curtice summed up local elections, at a breakfast hosted by Headland two days before the 2018 local council elections in England.
People could be forgiven for thinking that’s about as interesting as a local election gets. But digging into the data with the UK’s leading psephologist and BBC’s go-to-expert Professor Curtice, a much more nuanced picture starts to emerge.
Numbers can lie…
Or, at least, they can be seriously misleading. All 32 London borough councils are up for grabs, representing 42% of the total number of councils up for re-election on Thursday. And because London has multi-member wards (unlike much of the rest of England) the final tally of seats won or lost can paint a picture of success that isn’t quite accurate.
Conservatives have reason to be optimistic
There’s little evidence that we’ll see a major swing from Conservative to Labour on Thursday. But there’s every chance we’ll see the Brexit battle lines reinforced between Remain and Leave areas. London aside, many of the other councils being elected are in urban, provincial centres up and down England. It’s likely that we’ll see a swing across much of England to the Conservatives, reflecting the Brexit divide.
London = Labour…
The average London voter is now well-educated, young and in favour of multiculturalism, when compared to the rest of England. They associate the Conservatives with Brexit and the Leave vote, and therefore vote Labour. Aside from the totemic boroughs of Westminster and Wandsworth and a handful of others, London will remain overwhelmingly red on Thursday.
Even in London, Labour has relatively few opportunities to make council gains – they’ll have to do really well to win either Wandsworth or Westminster (which might explain why Sadiq Khan was in Wandsworth door-knocking last weekend).
If you want to know how much impact the accusations of anti-Semitism have had on the party, look to Barnet. Labour will be hoping to gain control of the borough, which voted 62% Remain and where no party has a majority on the council, thanks to the resignation of a Conservative councillor in March. But 15% of its population are Jewish, so if they’re galvanised to vote against Labour, we could see the Conservatives regain the borough.
…But London isn’t even that important
If you don’t live in London, you’re probably sick of how much attention it gets – and it turns out you’re right to be. There are so few marginals in the capital and it’s such a Labour stronghold that it’s a terrible measure of any party’s political performance. A more interesting and competitive battleground is Scotland where advances by the Tories mean that there the country is now a genuine three-party battleground.
We’re all bored of Brexit
Unfortunately, it’s going to frame political discourse in the UK for years to come. It could be decades before we see any reconciliation between Brexiteers and Remainers. And as negotiations continue, no one knows what might come next – not even Professor Curtice.