What do the 2014 local election results mean for next year’s general election?

The Labour lead of 2 percentage points in the BBC’s projected national share of the local election vote (PNS) is too narrow a lead for Labour to suggest they will be ahead in a general election next year.

Since it was first calculated (in 1983) oppositions have usually had bigger leads in the PNS in the year before a general election, but they still went on to lose the next election. The changes of government (in 1997 and 2010) were preceded by very big leads for the opposition in the PNS (16 points for Labour in 1996 and a 15 point lead for the Tories in 2009).

The message from the PNS is in line with general election vote intention in the opinion polls, which have on average also shown a narrow lead for Labour recently.

Even though their PNS is lower than the 23% they scored last year, the UKIP challenge remains significant. But since they seem to be hitting both main parties roughly equally, it is perhaps more important to think about both the impact on the major parties and it’s distribution across the country.

A uniform swing projection of the House of Commons from the PNS suggests that UKIP would not win any seats. This is partly because in 2010 their share was very evenly distributed.

There were some signs last year of UKIP’s vote becoming more concentrated in areas with more older people, fewer graduates and fewer ethnic minorities.

UKIP share became still more variable this year. They went up more where they started strongest. So they are building up strong support in particular places, which is what they need to do to win seats in Westminster. Indeed UKIP won the share of the vote across all the wards in the Great Grimsby constituency. This was the seat that Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin predicted would be the most fertile territory for a UKIP general election victory.

(Rotherham has also been mentioned as an effective UKIP constituency win, but it was not part of the BBC keywards data collection so I’m not in a position to be able to confirm.)

Moreover, there are several seats where, based on the results of this week’s local elections UKIP would not be far behind the winning party. These include Portsmouth North (5.9% behind Con), Portsmouth South (6.1% behind LD), Southport (9.3% behind LD), Bradford South (9.4% behind Lab).

Just as in local elections, UKIP are more likely to win seats in the Commons where the share of the vote between the three main parties is more evenly divided. In a general election if it becomes apparent that UKIP are a serious challengers this will lead to the kind of attention that might generate strong efforts to encourage tactical voting both for and against UKIP. So it may be that UKIP will find it difficult to divide and conquer.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to the BBC, John Curtice, Rob Ford, Jon Mellon and Rosie Shorrocks for their help with both data and analysis.

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