As each May election round approaches, when there is no general election, I write a guide to what constitutes success for the Labor Party. I’ve been writing this since 2011, so I’m able to go back to the benchmarks I set for Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn in the equivalent election rounds to make sure I’m suggesting comparable goals for Keir Starmer. To try to see through the inevitable Tory spin on how many gains Labor should make, with absurd figures like 800 seats quoted in The telegraphit is important to review previous results for these rounds of elections.
6,860 council seats are in place in 200 councils. The councils up for election include Labour’s strongest territory in England: all London boroughs and all metropolitan boroughs except Liverpool. The following elections take place:
- Every seat in the 32 Scottish councils;
- Every seat in the 22 Welsh councils;
- Every seat in London’s 32 borough councils;
- Each seat in four metropolitan borough councils (Birmingham, Bury, Rochdale, St Helens);
- One-third of the seats in 29 other metropolitan borough councils;
- Each seat in five unit councils;
- One-third of the seats in 16 unitary councils;
- Each seat in five district councils;
- Half of the seats in six district councils;
- One-third of the seats in 49 district councils;
- The Mayor of South Yorkshire Underground; and
- The mayors of Croydon, Hackney, Lewisham, Newham, Tower Hamlets and Watford.
There are very few councils that could change hands among those to be elected this year, so we shouldn’t expect massive changes in the number of Labour-controlled councils. In these councils electing by thirds, it is the third of the seats where Labor has already won most of the seats that are up – not the thirds where there are more gains to be made.
Between 2018, when those seats were last contested, and now, we have had the period when Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership became most unpopular with the public, culminating in the 2019 general election defeat, which saw Labor falling to its lowest tally of seats since 1935. These elections are an important part of the process of organizational and political recovery that Labor has gone through since that defeat and subsequent leadership change.
In London, where all 1,817 councilors are elected, 2018 has already been a spectacularly good year for Labour, and built on previous record years for seats in 2014 and 2010. Barnet is the most realistic London target up for grabs for Labour, but the local position is complicated by the fact that this is the borough with the largest Jewish community and whether enough time has passed since the Corbyn era for Jewish residents still trust Labor with their votes.
In the metropolitan boroughs, Labor already controls all but eight. In the districts, Labor could take control of Crawley and Worthing. It is hard to see unitary authorities where it is mathematically possible for Labor to win enough seats to take control. If Labor were to lose control of some councils, Sunderland would be the target of the ‘red wall’ the Tories target the most.
In Scotland, the single transferable vote electoral system makes it difficult for any party to win a majority of seats on any council. So the indicator we should be looking at in Scotland is our Scottish national vote share. Anas Sarwar is now in competition with the Tories for second place, getting there would be important to position Labor as the main challenger to the SNP in the next general election. In Wales, 2017 has not been a good year, so Labor are hoping to regain control of Blaenau Gwent, Bridgend and Merthyr Tydfil – all of which were lost at the time.
There are at least four ways to measure Labour’s national performance: projected national vote share (which the BBC calculates for the whole country, including areas not voting this year), raw number of councillors, the number of councilors won or lost and the number of councils checked.
Looking first at the national vote sharethe estimated figures the BBC uses are as follows for previous years in this cycle:
- 1998: 37% of Labor votes;
- 2002: 33%;
- 2006: 26%;
- 2010: 29% (legislative elections);
- 2014: 31%; and
- 2018: 36%.
2018 was the best year for Labor at any time between 2012 and today, which is why contested seats in England were won at a relatively high level for Labour. Note that last year, Labor’s share of the national vote was only 29%.
Gross number of advisors is the total national (Great Britain) figure, including all thousands of unelected councillors:
- 1998: 10,411 labor advisers;
- 2002: 8117;
- 2006: 6,176;
- 2010: 4,831;
- 2014: 7,098; and
- 2018: 6,468.
Currently, Labor has a total of 5,796 councilors – the lowest since 2010. We urgently need to build on that total at this stage of the cycle.
Number of wins or losses. For comparison, here are the years since Margaret Thatcher came to power in which Labor has made net gains (in the other 18 years not listed we have lost seats):
- 1980: +601 labor advisers;
- 1981: +988;
- 1983: +8;
- 1984: +88;
- 1986: +13;
- 1988: +76;
- 1989: +35;
- 1990: +284;
- 1991: +584;
- 1993: +111;
- 1994: +44;
- 1995: +1204;
- 1996: +468;
- 2010: +372;
- 2011: +860;
- 2012: +847;
- 2013: +288;
- 2014: +256; and
- 2018: +79.
The rounds of local elections not coinciding with a general election in which Labor lost seats while in opposition were 1982 (the year of the Falklands War), 1985 (the year of the miners’ strike), 2016, 2017, 2019 and 2021. Given that 2018 has already been a relatively good year, building on two more rounds of gains in the same cycle of seats in 2010 and 2014, any new net gain in seats would be a welcome sign.
Advice control. The number of Labour-controlled councils is as follows:
- 2002 – 136 (the last year we controlled more than the Tories);
- 2019-99; and
- 2021 – 91.
As stated above, there are only a small number of tips that could change hands, so any net gain would be welcome.
The location of councils and seats that change hands is also important: we need to win seats on councils covering similar areas to the seats we need to win to get an overall majority at a general election – Barnet, Burnley, Bury, Colchester, Crawley, Cumberland, Derby, Flintshire, Hartlepool, Hastings, Milton Keynes, Plymouth, Rossendale, Southampton, Swindon, Worthing and Wrexham, for example.
It is important to remember what has happened in these places since these council seats were last contested in 2018. In the 2019 general election, we lost “red wall” seats, including including the two constituencies of Bury, Burnley, Wrexham and Derby North, and we just hung on to Sunderland. The impact of the anti-Semitism scandal saw us defeated in all three seats in Barnet and neighboring Harrow East. The lack of confidence in our position on defense caused us to lose hard at Plymouth Moorview. We were funneled into traditional swing seats like Swindon, Stevenage, Hastings and Crawley.
These are all areas with battleground advice in this round of elections. Labor is trying to turn itself around electorally in a wide variety of places across the country – just two years after changing leaders following Corbyn’s defeat in 2019. The effects of the political and organizational turmoil from 2015 to 2019, which the findings of the Equality and Human Rights Commission of “unlawful acts of harassment and discrimination”, huge sums of money diverted to fight legal battles and organize a one-day music festival million pounds, the loss of large numbers of MPs and councillors, the departure of almost all of our experienced pre-2015 staff and the infighting that has weakened many constituency Labor parties, is still in the process of be overcome.
The return to work is happening faster than most people could have predicted or hoped. But it is still ongoing and is therefore likely to be visible in these elections in places, but not everywhere yet.