What can history tell us about the impact of local elections on general elections?

Throughout the week political analysis will focus on what the local election result say or mean ahead of the General Election on 8th June.

We take a look back in time to establish what happened in those local elections held just before a General Election. All the figures cited are from a House of Commons Library briefing published in April and the caveat must be added that local elections held in one year are not necessarily being fought in the same areas as previous years.

Most recently, in 2014, a year before David Cameron secured a surprise Conservative majority in the House of Commons, local elections were held on the same day as elections to the European Parliament. That said, the council elections saw Labour on 31% of the vote, with the Conservatives on 30% and the Lib Dems on 11%.

Fast forward to 2015, and the General Election saw the Conservatives increase their vote share to 37%, whilst Labour remained stuck on 30% and the Lib Dems slumped to 8%.

What then of 2009, a year before voters elected a hung Parliament? Labour had a disastrous performance in the local elections, securing just 22% of the vote, with the Conservatives on 35% and the Lib Dems on 25%.

By the 2010 General Election, Labour, under Gordon Brown, had been able to regain lost ground, securing 30% of the vote compared to Cameron’s Tories on 37% and the Lib Dems on 24%.

But what of local elections held just before General Elections which saw a party secure a landslide?

In 1996, a year before Labour secured its historic Commons majority under Tony Blair of 179, Labour was on 43% of the vote with the Tories under John Major on 29% and the Lib Dems on 24%. By the 1997 General Election, the Conservative made up some ground, securing 32% of the vote, with Labour on 44% and the Lib Dems on 17%.

Perhaps though, in the current climate, the best local elections to compare todays result to are those from 1983, a period which saw a dominant Conservative female Prime Minister up against a left wing Labour opponent.  Like today as well, the council elections were held in May, followed by a General Election the month after.

In the local elections, the Conservatives secured 39% of the vote compared to Labour on 36% and the then parties that were to later form the basis of the Lib Dems on 20%.

By the time of the General Election, the Tories under Thatcher secured 42% of the vote, giving her a majority for 144 seats. Labour meanwhile slumped from its performance in the council elections, hitting just 28% of the vote with the parties that would later form the Lib Dems on 25%.

It should be noted however that in 1983, Thatcher called the General Election only after the council elections were held, making it difficult to make any direct comparisons to today.

What then can be concluded? At the risk of putting analysts out of a job, it very difficult to say. Often council elections will be seen as opportunities to safely give parties a kicking, but the unique situation we now face is that local elections have been held in the full knowledge that a General Election will be held next month.

However, if 1983, which seems the year that is perhaps the best to compare today to, Labour saw its vote share slump between the council elections in May and the General Election in June. If 1983 is to be the guide then, today’s results could be optimistic as Labour seeks to read the tea leafs and understand what it will mean for its representation in Parliament. But, has Anthony Wells concludes at YouGov:

“Don’t just assume that the projected overall shares of the vote at this week’s votes are going to be repeated in next month’s election: people vote differently for different reasons at different sorts of election.”


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