What do local poll results tell us about the state of UK politics?

Over the course of 48 agonising hours, Rishi Sunak saw his Conservative party crushed in elections across England and Wales, culminating in Andy Street’s agonisingly narrow defeat as Tory mayor of the West Midlands.

The dark outlook was summed up by the ConservativeHome activists’ website which said: “These elections have only confirmed that the Conservatives are heading for the electoral equivalent of the Chicxulub asteroid impact (except this time one or two dinosaurs might survive).”

So what do the results tell us about the state of British politics and the run-up to the next general election?

Grim for the Conservatives

The Conservatives lost about half of the council seats they were defending, with Labour winning in general election target areas across England and the Liberal Democrats advancing in the “blue wall”.

Meanwhile the Tories lost the Blackpool South parliamentary by-election to Labour on a 26-point swing, the third highest since the second world war, and lost crucial mayoral contests, including London and West Midlands.

One bright spot was Lord Ben Houchen’s victory as mayor of Tees Valley, but even he lost votes and campaigned with scant reference to the Conservatives or Sunak, “forgetting” to wear a blue rosette at his count.

Looking on the bright side

Expect to hear a lot more from Number 10 about the “national equivalent vote” projection by Michael Thrasher, local elections expert, which put Labour’s vote share on 34 points, just seven ahead of the Tories on 27.

Thrasher said such a performance pointed towards a hung parliament at the general election and Number 10 claimed this would force Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer to run an unstable coalition, possibly including the Scottish National party.

With national opinion polls typically giving Labour a 20-point lead, it is easy to see why Number 10 was so keen to seize upon this analysis. “The polls are wrong,” said Mark Harper, transport secretary.

What others are saying

Many elections experts are unimpressed. They say that “national equivalent vote” exercises are good for projecting local election results to create a national picture, but are a bad guide to future general elections.

They note that people vote very differently in local elections, often backing smaller parties, such as the Greens and Lib Dems, while they might vote tactically for Labour at a general election.

Last week’s elections did not take place in Scotland — where Labour is hoping to make big gains at the expense of the SNP — while Reform UK, a threat to the Tories, will be a much bigger presence at the general election.

Labour is advancing in target areas

Even if its national vote share was only 34 per cent, psephologists note that Labour support is now being distributed “efficiently” across target areas, instead of piling up in safe seats in urban areas.

For example, Starmer’s party won in Hartlepool, scene of a memorable Boris Johnson by-election victory in 2021, Redditch in the crucial West Midlands battleground, and Rushmoor in Hampshire.

The easy victory in the Blackpool South by-election was also encouraging for Labour, but Starmer’s team will be trying to work out why they failed to win the key target of Harlow council, in Essex, where the Tories held on.

A yellow dawn?

Rather unheralded, the local elections represented solid progress for the Lib Dems, who won 522 seats overall, beating the Conservatives with 515 into third place.

Worryingly for Sunak, the electoral map showed that the Lib Dems were advancing in the kind of prosperous blue wall seats where they hope to make their gains against the Conservatives at the general election.

Victories in Dorset and Tunbridge Wells confirmed the threat posed by Sir Ed Davey’s party. In Woking, a target seat in Surrey, the Lib Dems now have 24 council seats, while the Conservatives have none.

Significant others

The Greens had a good election result, gaining more than 70 seats and narrowly failing to take overall control in Bristol. The party could take key votes from Labour at the general election.

Reform UK, founded by Nigel Farage, won 16.9 per cent of the vote in Blackpool South but failed narrowly to beat the Conservatives into third place — depriving the insurgent party of a psychological breakthrough.

Elsewhere Reform won only a handful of council seats in local elections, but it will pose a bigger threat to Sunak at the general election when it has vowed to stand candidates against every Conservative.

Labour’s Gaza problem

Pat McFadden, Labour’s campaign chief, admitted that the party’s stance on the Israel-Hamas war has cost it support in Muslim communities. “We will work to get people’s support back,” he said.

The problem was manifested in Oldham, where Labour lost control of the local council after ceding seats to independent councillors who had run on a pro-Palestine ticket.

In the West Midlands, the independent candidate Akhmed Yakoob came third with almost 20 per cent of the vote after running a campaign focused on the Gaza war. Some Labour MPs fear the issue could cost them crucial votes — and potentially some seats — at the general election.

Return of Boris Johnson?

With many Tory MPs resigned to general election defeat, focus is beginning to switch to what happens to the party after polling day and what direction it might head in.

Farage is constantly rumoured to be considering a return to frontline politics and could be a significant influence over the future of rightwing politics in Britain.

But there is also chat about whether former prime minister Boris Johnson might return to the fray. He retains a rare popular appeal for the Tories: intriguingly Johnson’s endorsement was welcomed by Houchen and Street, who did not want such backing from Sunak.

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