by Stephen Fisher, 3rd May 2022.
There are local elections tomorrow in England, Scotland, and Wales. Table 1 below shows my forecasts for net seat changes for each. They are based on projecting changes in opinion poll performance since the last round of local elections, with different methods for the different countries as discussed below. They represent what we might expect if the changes in party performance in local elections are on par with changes in the opinion polls.
Table 1. Forecasts for English local election net seat gains/losses for 2022
The Conservatives are expected to lose seats in all three countries. They are defending a strong 2017 base in Scotland and Wales, and dropped in the polls since both 2017 and 2018 when the English seats were last fought.
Labour are expected to be the main beneficiaries from Conservative losses. The projections suggest Labour might recover most but not all the losses they suffered in 2017 in Scotland and Wales. In England, Labour are trying this week to build on cumulative gains from 2010, 2014 and 2018. They already control over half the seats up this year. Since Labour are at 40% in the polls, their poll support is no greater than is was in 2018. Instead of gaining seats from winning more voters, Labour are projected to make council seat gains in England primarily from the drop in the Conservative vote. But, as discussed below, last-year’s experience shows there are various reasons why that might not happen.
Perhaps most surprising of the forecasts is the projected drop in SNP seats from what was considered a disappointing performance in 2017, winning only 32% of the first-preference vote when typically the party has been winning at least 45% of the vote in Scotland-wide elections since the independence referendum in 2014. My projection for the Scottish locals this week is based on changes since 2017 in local-election first-preference vote intention polls. Even general-election vote-intention polls show no advance on 2017 for the SNP. The party will be hoping that more of the people who vote for them in Westminster and Holyrood elections will support them in the locals this week.
Typically, the Conservatives lose English council seats when their lead over Labour in the opinion polls drops from what it was the last time the election was fought. Similarly, if the Tories extend their lead, then they typically make net gains. The graph below shows that pattern for local elections in England when the Conservatives were in government and the local elections were not on the same day as a general election. There is a strong correlation, but with a lot of noise around it, meaning any forecast comes with a big range of uncertainty. This year either of the two main parties could be either up or down by more than 100 seats based on the variation in previous local elections.
Last year’s local elections contributed to that noise. The graph above distinguishes between what happened in the elections that were delayed from 2020 because of the Covid pandemic, and those that happened in 2021 as scheduled. The Conservatives substantially outperformed expectations from the historical pattern for both sets of elections. They made +248 gains in the “2020” set despite polls (in 2021) showing only a 1-point increase in the Con-Lab lead since 2016. For the 2021 set, the Tories suffered a net loss of only 14 seats despite the poll lead dropping by 13 points from the high that Theresa May enjoyed in the 2017 local elections (before losing most of it at the general election the following month).
Conservative success last year was partly due to further gains in northern Leave-voting areas. Also where the anti-Tory vote did increase, the new voters were often divided between Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green candidates.
Assuming the pattern in the above graph does apply this year, the Conservatives are set to make net losses of 165 seats in England. This is because Labour now have a 6-point lead, but when the seats up this year were last fought in 2018 the Conservatives had a 1-point lead.
As well as the problems of a divided opposition under first-past-the-post, another reason the Conservatives could again exceed expectations from the polls is that they have relatively few seats to lose. They are defending just 32% of the seats up for election in England this week. Not least this is because there are all-out elections in London; a city which now mainly votes Labour.
Labour are famously dominant in Welsh politics. The party has won every election in the country for 100 years. But after Labour, the largest group of councillors in Wales is the independents. The relatively non-partisan nature of Welsh local government makes it particularly difficult to forecast. My attempt in 2017 did not go well.
As well as a challenging context, there is a dearth of data for forecasting. Welsh polls are even more rare now than they were in 2017. There has only been one this year, and that was in February. Westminster vote-intention polls have been a very poor guide to local-vote shares. In 2017 the final one had Con at 40%; they actually got 19%.
There is a case for applying GB-level polling changes to Wales. In recent years support for the British parties in Wales has broadly moved up and down over time in step with changes in English public opinion. Since England has the vast majority of the British population, GB polls may provide a reasonable guide to changes in party support in Wales. Since 2017, the Conservatives are down 12 points, and Labour are up 12 points. However, the Conservatives only got 19% in 2017 Welsh locals, so a 12-point swing away from them seems too far-fetched. Moderating this to a 6-point swing, and regressing seats on vote shares across local elections at a national level, suggests 80 net gains for Labour and a similar number of net losses for the Conservatives.
Plaid Cymru support was very close to 16% in all four rounds of local elections since 2004, and the Welsh opinion polls provide no reason to suggest that will change much. Similarly, there is no polling evidence pointing to much change for the Liberal Democrats in Wales. They are on 10 points in the GB polls now, the same as they were before the 2017 locals. Based on the polling evidence for Wales and GB has a whole, the best estimate is no net change for both Plaid Cymru and the Lib Dems in Wales.
Whereas England and Wales have first-past-the-post elections, albeit often with multimember wards, Scotland uses the single-transferable-vote (STV) form of proportional representation to elect all their councillors every five years. The system is broadly proportional for the major parties, including net gains and losses being broadly proportional to changes in the shares of the first-preference vote since the previous election. Roughly speaking, major parties gain 12 seats for every percentage point gain in the vote, and vice versa for losses. For example, in 2017 the Labour vote dropped by 11-points, as a result they lost 132 seats net, exactly equal to 11*12.
The most difficult part of forecasting Scottish local-election seat outcomes is forecasting the shares of the first-preference vote. In 2017 the polls led us to expect big gains for the SNP, but they did not materialise. The projected changes in first-preference-vote shares and net gains/losses in Table 2 below are based on opinion polls of first-preference-vote intention.
Table 2. Forecast changes in first-preference vote share and council seats in Scotland
|% point change in vote||Change in seats|
Discussions of past local election forecasts and other aspects of local election analysis can be found by following the “Local Elections” archive link in the category list on the right-hand side of this site.
Acknowledgements: Thanks to David Cowling, Colin Rallings, Michael Thrasher, Eilidh Macfarlane, the BBC and House of Commons Library for help with the data.