Close-up of Big Ben clock

Yesterday’s local elections saw the contention of around 8,400 seats in 248 local councils across England, six mayoral posts and 11 Northern Ireland councils. With almost all the results now in, we have seen significant losses for the Conservatives, a marked failure by Labour to capitalise and a public grappling with their dissatisfaction around the management of Brexit. Despite worries of election fatigue however, turnout appears to be averaging just one or two points below the last two local elections.

Local election results, often coming midway through a government’s term, are frequently used as an indicator by parties and pundits of national approval of leadership and policy. Equally, with local campaigners back on the doorsteps of voters they provide a useful platform for parties to engage with the public and hear their views and opinions directly.

They are particularly significant this year as they provide some indication as to the likely results of the European Elections on the 23 May 2019, which have now been all but officially confirmed by the government. With the Brexit Party and Change UK ineligible to stand in the local elections due to registration deadlines, the European elections will be the first test of the major parties’ Brexit strategy against these break-away groups.

Breakdown of the results so far

In recent years, the reign of the two major parties in local councils – and in Westminster – has been notable, with the smaller parties struggling to seize seats. However, the tide has now turned – as votes continue to trickle in it is the independents, Greens and the Lib Dems who are the big winners from this election.

The results to date show significant losses for both the Conservative and the Labour party, with both parties losing seats to the Lib Dems, Greens and independents. The Lib Dems have gained over 530 councillors, as well as the control of ten councils (and climbing). It is worth remembering however, that while this is a win for the Lib Dems, they were defending their worst-ever set of council results and are still miles away from the 31 councils they held in 2008.

The Green Party are up more than 137 seats, an interesting insight into the early success of the climate change protests. As for the independents: across councils declared so far there are now 2.7 times as many independent councillors as there were in 2015 and the traditionally Labour held Bolsover – where the Leave vote was 70% – has been lost to no overall control. UKIP, on the other hand, is down 85 seats so far.

The Conservatives have exceeded the predicted losses of 750 councillors (of their 4,900), with some predicting a total loss of 1,000. Early analysis shows they are doing better in areas where more leave voters reside, implying that May’s prevarication over Brexit is alienating more Conservative Remainers than Leavers.

The Labour party is also losing seats, albeit at a lower rate, but the numbers are still a disappointment given the predictions of a 300 net gain earlier this week. This should be troubling to a party whose leader has been calling for a snap general election. It also demonstrates that Labour is failing to pick up the Remain votes that the Conservatives seem to be losing – a reflection of the party’s jumbled rhetoric on Brexit and lack of wider domestic policy.

Looking ahead

Following today’s results, most pollsters and commentators will be predicting a similar result at the European Elections, with Labour and the Conservatives likely to lose a number of the 37 MEPs they hold between them. It seems a safe bet that Nigel Farage’s Brexit party will be the main beneficiary of those losses, with the Leavers who remained loyal to May in these elections abandoning ship to what could be seen as a more viable alternative for delivering Brexit. Today’s Lib Dem gains may also be reflected later this month, as the party will have renewed hope in adding to the one Lib Dem MEP currently sitting in the European Parliament.

So the take home message of these elections is neither a surprise nor hard to understand, and a quick glance at Twitter shows that politicians have heard it too: Brexit – solve it. As Sir Vince Cable said: “voters have sent a clear message that they no longer have confidence in the Conservatives, but they are also refusing to reward Labour while the party prevaricates on the big issue of the day”.

If you want to get in touch with our public affairs experts then email Daniel Cambers, deputy managing director of our public affairs practice, here.