Yesterday saw the first major electoral test of Theresa May’s leadership of the Conservative Party since taking over as Prime Minister last year.
The English county council elections, and local elections in Scotland and Wales, offer some insights into the state of play with the main parties ahead of the General Election. It was a chance to see whether the Conservatives’ opinion poll lead will translate into gains in traditional Labour areas. For Labour, it was an opportunity to assess the scale of the likely meltdown under Jeremy Corbyn. The Liberal Democrats needed to show that their much vaunted fightback could win them back the council seats they lost over the last six years. UKIP were fighting for relevance following Nigel Farage’s departure and the Conservatives’ appropriation of their core issue.
The headline result is, of course, the strong showing for the Conservatives; their best in a decade. As of Friday morning, the Tories had gained control of at least four councils in England – Warwickshire, Lincolnshire, Gloucestershire, and the Isle of Wight. Their vote was also considerably higher in northern seats, quadrupling their vote in a Hartlepool by-election and being denied control of Northumberland County Council only by a straw poll.
Labour’s performance was also as expected. Although their vote share was only 3% lower than at the last county elections in 2013, they lost almost a quarter of their seats as well as two Welsh councils – becoming the first opposition in history to lose seats for three consecutive local elections.
More noteworthy is the failure of the Liberal Democrats to make any real inroads, despite a recent surge in membership. Their vote was up 2% and they made progress in some places, particularly in Eastleigh where they won all seven seats up for contention. Yet they fell short in other areas, and the anticipated mass defection of voters disgruntled with the outcome of the EU referendum appears to have failed to materialise.
It was a dreadful night for UKIP, who didn’t retain a single seat and have been wiped out in their Brexit supporting heartlands such as Essex, Hampshire and Lincolnshire – where Paul Nuttall intends to stand for Parliament. Party spinners sought to portray this as a result of Brexit now being delivered, but perhaps a more important factor has been the past two years of indulgent splits and damaging infighting.
There are three main conclusions we can draw from the results.
First is that the much speculated realignment of voter behaviour as a result of the EU referendum does not seem to have happened. Speculation about MPs who supported Leave being at risk because their constituencies voted for Remain, or vice versa, is therefore likely to amount to little, as will any attempt at tactical voting aimed at maximising support for pro-EU candidates. Whether this trend translates to London, which is more metropolitan and liberal in outlook and did not vote in these elections, remains to be seen.
Secondly, UKIP is in real danger of descending into irrelevance. Unless something hugely unexpected happens in the next few weeks, they can no longer be considered competitive in any constituency and should anticipate sliding back into fourth place behind the Liberal Democrats.
Third, it is clear the Conservatives are dominant and on course for a comfortable parliamentary majority, barring any major slip up or disaster during the rest of the campaign. However, the Labour vote still held up reasonably well in some parts of the country, as it did in 2016 and at the London mayoral election. David Davis was therefore right to warn about complacency earlier this week, and it should not be taken for granted that Labour seats with majorities of 5,000 and under will automatically fall to the Conservatives next month. Whilst these results are highly indicative of what might happen in June, they are different elections with different factors influencing the way people vote. A change in circumstances, like a potentially higher turnout, could mean that the same result is not guaranteed.
Nonetheless, the outcome was hardly surprising. A surge for the Conservatives, Labour lagging behind, Liberal Democrats still in the doldrums and UKIP facing an existential crisis. Perhaps the most noteworthy thing about these elections was the fact that the opinion polls finally got it right.