Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Easy mode: on

Big pro-Labour swings in London and the core cities mean 3 May will be a good night for Labour, write Lewis Baston and Richard Angell 

The polls in 2018 are even Stevens, with both the Conservative party and Labour around or a bit above 40 per cent and usually within a point or two of each other. This is better for Labour than it was in 2016 and worse than in 2014, although polling organisations were almost definitely over-counting Labour throughout the 2010-15 parliament. The United Kingdom Independence party’s vote has more or less vanished. The national equivalent vote (NEV) calculated by professors Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher had Labour one point ahead in 2014. Since the 2010 change of government there have been only two sets of local elections where a party has opened up a large lead in the NEV popular vote – Labour in 2012 and the Conservatives in May 2017.

Although there has been little net movement since 2014 this disguises what could be some sharp changes in voting. One is that Ukip polled as well as it ever did in Labour-inclined areas in 2014 and that vote has largely vanished. Ukip’s councillors coming up this year will face a similar environment to their former colleagues elected in 2013, who were all scythed down by the electorate in May 2017. There may be a few with personal votes and particularly Brexity wards who could survive – perhaps Lawrence Webb in Havering – but most will vanish. In some areas, including North East Lincolnshire (Grimsby and Cleethorpes) and Plymouth, this should gift some gains to Labour, both from Ukip – and from the Conservatives in the numerous cases where councillors elected as Ukip have subsequently defected to Tory. Some of these wards were Labour by large margins in 2016. It should be enough for Labour to gain North East Lincolnshire from no overall control and Plymouth directly from the Conservatives. In other areas, notably ever-marginal and volatile Dudley, it is less clear which of the major parties will be the main beneficiary. Keep an eye out for Great Yarmouth too.

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Another feature of 2018, related to the ex-Ukip vote, is the probability that there will be cross-traffic between Conservative and Labour on the model of the 2017 election, even on the basis of no net swing. This gives Labour a significant edge in these elections, as the councils where votes take place include London and the core cities, and emerging Labour demographics like young people, professionals and ethnic minority voters are well represented; the territory was less pro-‘Leave’ than England as a whole in 2016 (51 per cent compared to 53.4 per cent)

Regional opinion polling in London suggests that there will be big pro-Labour swings, particularly in the inner boroughs, on a scale that puts Tory ‘flagships’ like Barnet, Wandsworth and even Westminster into contention. It is obviously a stretch target, but Labour is on the front foot in Kensington and Chelsea, having won the parliamentary seats and the council’s utter incompetence in the wake of the Grenfell Tower disaster. Labour can focus its resources in these boroughs because the Tories are barely even trying to regain Croydon and Redbridge, where Labour gained the councils in 2014. In Merton, where Labour took seven seats from the Tories four years ago – winning the council from no overall control – the Tories are retreating further to defend marginal council wards in the now marginal parliamentary seat of Wimbledon. In the same vein, it is worth looking out for council wards in east London constituency Chingford and Woodford Green (spread over Labour-held boroughs Waltham Forest and Redbridge) where Iain Duncan Smith is a top target. At the other end of London, the wards in Hillingdon that make up Boris Johnson’s seat will indicate whether the 13.6 per cent swing in 2017 was a one-off or the first sign of a direction of travel in the seat.

Some of the more interesting contests will be in the Midlands, in boroughs where Labour did reasonably well in 2014 and before, but where there were bad parliamentary results in 2015 and 2017 and a big Leave support in 2016. Control will only shift if there are significant swings this year, but it is well worth looking at Newcastle-under-Lyme, Cannock Chase, Amber Valley, and Nuneaton and Bedworth to see what is going on in areas that were parliamentary target marginals that have slipped away – plus Walsall, where Labour lost a seat in 2017.

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Labour should be expecting net gains, unlike the council elections in 2016 and 2017, but do not expect splashy large gains in seats, as 2018 builds on two successive elections showing reasonable progress (2010, 2014). In a lot of inner London Labour is already nearly maxed out in terms of seats – no matter how good the swing is in Islington or Lewisham, there is only a single seat that Labour can possibly gain in either. The results will probably lend themselves to a good headline story for Labour, of the party gaining ground on both sides of the cultural faultline that runs through England. Labour should pick up North East Lincolnshire, the council covering one of the media’s favourite Leave hot-spots of Grimsby. Winning in Grimsby and Battersea would be satisfying, good for morale, and far from impossible as, after all, Labour did manage this in June 2017.

If one is interested in getting below the surface, the places to watch are Wandsworth and Barnet for overall control, Dudley for a close battle with Ukip declining in a borough full of marginal seats, Newcastle-under-Lyme, and the wards that make up marginal seats such as Southampton Itchen and Portsmouth South. Take a look, too, at Worthing, to see if this growth area for Labour in 2017 comes good again in 2018. Above all, Labour must avoid the temptation of believing its own spin; the party is playing the local elections game on easy mode this year and the difficulty level is turned up in 2019.

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Richard Angell is director of Progress and Lewis Baston is a contributing editor to Progress and senior research fellow at Democratic Audit. They tweet at @RichardAngell and @lewis_baston

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Photo: By secretlondon123 (originally posted to Flickr as Polling station) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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Richard Angell

is director of Progress

Lewis Baston

is senior research fellow at Democratic Audit and author of the Progress pamphlet, Marginal Difference

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