Sunak loses locally

Britain’s Conservative Party did its best to manage expectations ahead of last week’s local elections, telling anyone who would listen that it could lose as many as a thousand seats – in the hope that the result, even if bad, would not be quite that bad and could therefore be spun as a win. But to no avail: on the BBC’s compilation, Conservative losses across England amount to 1,061 seats.

The usual caveats need to be made. These elections are local, not national, and their predictive power is not particularly good. They are also partial: many councils were not voting, including most obviously the whole of London but also many parts of the north and midlands, as well as Scotland and Wales. And the general election is not due for another year and a half; a lot could happen in the meantime.

But with all that said, this is still an extraordinarily bad result for prime minister Rishi Sunak and his government. Just as he had seemed to be finally putting some distance between himself and the disasters of his predecessors, the voters have delivered a reminder that they are still not happy. It’s important to remember that these elections were for positions last elected in 2019, at which time the Tories were already in trouble; to go backwards far further than that point is a very bad sign.

The party went into the elections with majorities in 81 of the 229 councils holding elections; that number was slashed to 33. Labour now controls more than twice as many, going from 49 to 71. The Liberal Democrats made big gains as well, up from 17 to 29, and even the Greens had a good day, doubling their number of councillors and winning a majority on a council (Mid Suffolk) for the first time.

The BBC uses a statistical model to make projections of the national share of the vote that the elections represent. On that basis, the Conservatives are on 26%, down nine points on the comparable figure from the 2019 local elections and down even further from the 43.6% they won at the general election later that year. But Labour’s gain is not so impressive; it has 35%, the same as 2019 local and up slightly from 32.2% at the general election.

This is the same pattern we’ve seen in Australia, federally last year and more recently in New South Wales, where the Liberals – who of course identify with Britain’s Conservatives, not the Liberal Democrats – have lost badly but Labor has won only narrowly, with the difference going to third parties and independents. The Lib Dems emerged with a projected national vote of 20%, almost double the 11.4% they had at the last general election.

If Britain had a democratic electoral system, there would be no doubt that the Lib Dems were on track to win the balance of power between the two larger parties, and coalition with Labour would be the expected outcome. But with first-past-the-post voting in single-member districts, a national vote in the mid-30s would give Labour a good chance of winning a majority on its own: it did so comfortably in 2005 with just 35.2%. (And for what it’s worth, opinion polls have been showing Labour with a much bigger lead, of the order of 15 points.)

The Conservatives are ready to use the prospect of a “hung parliament” as a scare tactic, but that’s a weapon that could easily backfire. If Labour is seen to be close to majority-government territory, it might drive voters towards it rather than away. And voter affection for the country’s undemocratic electoral system seems to be on the wane; the promise of reform could turn out to be a plus rather than a minus – although Labour’s leadership class is almost as hostile to it as the Tories are.

The local elections brought several stories of informal co-operation between Labour and Lib Dems, with resources directed in such a way as to avoid destructive competition between them. Even without such encouragement, voters are often capable of working out the mechanics of tactical voting themselves. To the extent that they do, Labour is in a better position than the raw numbers might suggest.

It’s unlikely that anyone in the Conservative leadership was still entertaining the possibility of an early election this year, but if they were, last week’s results will have put paid to the idea. Sunak’s only realistic strategy is to hang on for as long as he can, govern as well as he can, and hope that somehow he can turn the ship around.


5 thoughts on “Sunak loses locally

  1. I doubt Sunak is foolish enough to go for the last possible polling day available – John Major did that in 1997 and seats that were bye-words for solid Conservatism fell to the Labour Party.


    1. I don’t think anything much could have helped the govt in 1997. Sunak could technically leave it until January 2025, but that’s unlikely in the extreme. I suspect he’ll go in October/November next year.


      1. if Johnson runs a full term, it’ll be 50 years since anyone other than Tony Blair won a majority for Labour – and when that will sink in for Labourites?


      2. True. Forgive the Johnson instead of Conservatives typo – i tend to get confused as to who’s running the British Tories as Johnson-Truss-Sunak happened so quickly.


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