Peer-ing into the future 

Headland hosts one of Britain’s best pollsters, Lord Hayward 

Having a conversation with an eminent pollster on the polling day of a byelection is a dream for most political junkies. Here at Headland we were lucky enough to get the chance to do so when one of Britain’s most prominent psephologists, Lord Hayward, joined us this week for a lunchtime fireside chat.  

Lord Hayward’s polling prowess is famed in Westminster, a status made legendary by his correct – but at the time controversial – call that David Cameron would lose the Brexit referendum two weeks out from the vote. His knowledge of the nation’s political geography, down to the council ward level, is unrivalled. Who better, then, to ask for predictions about the upcoming local elections? 

The Government will not be comforted to know that his view of their current political predicament is much more in line with prevailing opinion than it was in 2016. While Hayward reminded us that Labour are defending considerably more councils than the Tories, he said the Tories’ 2019 local election high water mark was so high that it would likely result in losses whatever the polls were doing. With the polls where they are, he said, the Conservatives can expect substantial losses. 

He’s also watching a pre-election day number that will have significance for the Tories – the proportion of seats in which they field candidates. Historically, the party has stood almost everywhere, putting up candidates in 95-97% of seats. If that proportion drops to around 90% or lower, Hayward says, it would be an indication of apathy among the party’s activists that will worry its strategists come the general. 

That’s not to say that Labour will have an easy ride in May. Hayward was quick to point out that there is a considerable chunk of the electorate that effectively vote against the two main parties in local elections. Some people would vote Reform where they fielded candidates – but many votes for the Lib Dems and the Greens are effectively protest votes as well. In places where those parties are strong (the South West and commuting towns for the former; university towns for the latter) he expects them to pick up seats. This was, he said, part of a broader trend of increasing voter apathy and disillusionment, drawing comparisons with elections across Europe that have seen increased votes for protest parties, particularly of the Right. 

He also flagged the increasing dissatisfaction in parts of Labour’s base with the party’s position on Gaza. With polls still open in Rochdale at the time of our conversation, this point could not have been timelier. Hayward predicted that if George Galloway won the chaotic byelection there it could be a harbinger of trouble in other Labour seats with large Muslim communities, particularly if Galloway puts serious effort into replicating his win elsewhere. Whether that prediction will come to pass now that Galloway is Rochdale’s newest MP remains to be seen. 

With the local elections 8 weeks away, there is still a lot of road to run. Lord Hayward himself said that he wouldn’t be producing his predictions for what the results might look like until about a week before the event. We’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for his calculations, and what the results might mean for the upcoming general election. 

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