May 2023

Written by:

David Button

David Button

Senior Account Director

There’s more to these election results than meets the eye… 

There is a tendency among political commentators and analysts to put too much weight on the outcomes of local elections when a general election is looming. This is understandable – you don’t want to risk getting bogged down in the detail to the point where it becomes dull for those who just want a broad overview. 

But that detail is pretty crucial, and without it you lose a lot of the colour. For example, after the locals the BBC highlighted that, if you were to apply these results to a national election, Labour would have a 9 percentage point (ppt) lead. Two days later, polls were showing Labour at 12 or even 19ppt ahead. Local elections do not predict general elections. They just don’t. 

With the dust now settling, I’ve looked at some of the key trends and outcomes and what to look out for in the year ahead to the next general election. Because there’s so much to say, I’ve given you a quick snapshot  – but you can click the orange “find out more” buttons if you want to go a little further. 

1. This election will not predict the general election. 

Local elections do not predict general elections – even if they’re on the same day: 

  • In 1997 (same day): Labour won a historic landslide at the General Election, but only gained 1 councillor in the locals. 
  • In 2010 (same day): The Conservatives and Lib Dems end up in Coalition Government, but both lost 100 councillors each. In contrast, Labour lost the General Election but gained 417 councillors. 
  • In 2019 (6 months apart): The Conservatives lost 1,300 seats at the local elections, but gained an 80 seat majority in Parliament 6 months later. 
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There is a tendency for commentators and politicians alike to look at the results of a local election and think they can give you an insight into the next General Election. Often, they absolutely do not – even if they happen on the same day. 

Remember 1997, when Labour stormed to a landslide majority of 197 MPs? On the same day, they gained 1 councillor. In 2010, when 13 years of Labour government ended and the Conservative/Lib Dem Coalition came to be, Labour gained 417 councillors while the Tories and Lib Dems lost more than 100 each. 

And most recently, in 2019 – the same year that this year’s seats were up for election – the Tories lost 1,300 seats just six months before winning an 80-seat majority in Westminster. 

And you only have to look at the polls. The stat that came out after the elections was that Labour would have a 9ppt lead in a national poll but opinion polls since the local elections have reverted back to the general 12-19ppt lead for Labour which we’ve come to expect. There were no elections in London, Wales, or Scotland, all of which will see a decent Labour vote. 

There is too much uncertainty. Too much that could change. After all, a year is 52 long times in politics. 

2. The Tories’ defeat is greater than you think. 

These results shouldn’t be seen in isolation. It’s not just the 1,000 the Conservatives lost this year – they also lost 1,300 the last time these seats were up. That’s 2,300 councillors lost in just two election cycles.  

Plus, they’ve lost old-school Tory seats like in South Oxford (down 33 seats to 1 in just 8 years) and Folkestone (down 22 seats to 5 in 8 years)

And Labour absolutely did better and they’re now the biggest party in local politics. In 2019 (the last election for these seats) they lost 84 councillors, this time they gained 537. Most of the Tory losses in 2019 were to Liberal Democrats, Greens and Independents.

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That the Conservatives losing 1,000 seats was ‘expectation management’ before the election ignores the 1,300 seat loss last time these seats were up. It means 2,300 seats lost in 4 years – and in places that have a long history of being Tory heartlands. In 2015, the Tories had 33 of 36 seats in South Oxfordshire, today they have one. In Folkestone & Hythe they had 22 out of 30 seats in 2015, today they have five.

The latter is particularly interesting – one of the main hotspots for illegal boats landing in the UK is now expected to return a Green-Labour coalition.

And for all the bluster about Keir Starmer’s message not getting through on the doorstep, the truth is that Labour made 537 gains in a set of seats that they lost 84 of last time around – it was the Lib Dems, Greens and Independents that were the winners in 2019. This change should not be overlooked. They are now the biggest party in local politics for the first time since 2002.

There were some glimmers of hope for the Conservatives in the inability of Reform to really make headway as an alternative on the right of centre, wins in areas that Labour managed poorly (Leicester and Slough particularly), and that there is still probably 17 months to turn things around.

3. Rise of the alternatives (and tactical voting).

The Lib Dem and Green rises are a proper trend now – this is the fifth set of elections in a row in which they’ve made gains. Between them, they now have 20% of all council seats, up from 16% last year.

Plus, resentment on the left will mean more tactical voting to oust Conservatives in key areas like the Blue Wall. Polling after the election shows that 62% of likely Labour voters and 70% of likely Lib Dem voters would consider voting tactically to ensure the party they dislike (let’s face it, the Tories) lose. Only 38% of Tories would do the same.

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The big winners this year were the Lib Dems and Greens, but this should not be seen as a one-off. In fact, it’s the fifth year in a row that both parties have gained councillors. This is a trend that has fundamentally shifted the landscape of local politics, with the two parties together holding 20% of all UK council seats – up from 16% last year and 14% when these seats were last contested. The Greens even won their first council outright, building on their performance there in 2019 and going from five to 24 seats in just two election cycles.

These results, and the successes in their campaigning, should not be underplayed. But nor should the role of tactical voting, which many have attributed to some of this success and which could be a big factor at the next election. Polling of voters in the ‘Blue Wall’, conducted just days after the elections by Redfield & Wilton, shows that 62% of likely Labour voters and 70% of likely Lib Dem voters would consider voting tactically to ensure the party they dislike (let’s face it, the Tories) loses. Contrary to this, only 38% of Tory voters would consider tactical voting – perhaps because of a lack of choice on their side of the spectrum.

Should this continue to the general election, the Tories might find in some areas that their opposition vote is not quite as split as they expect.

4. Housing will be a headache for all parties because of their own local NIMBYs.

There has been a 557% increase in the number of councils with No Overall Control in 10 years – and it gets bigger every year. But each one is different, so the specific party dynamics in those areas is more important to look at.

Housing (or a lack thereof) has already been cited by some as a reason the Conservatives lost seats. But the rise of local NIMBY parties might not help matters: Lib Dems and Greens are notorious NIMBYs at a local level. Interestingly, you’re statistically more likely to see a planning application granted in a Tory or NOC council than in a Labour one (according to 2021/2 figures – the most recent available).

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After the elections, a growing divide became apparent amongst the Conservatives: is the problem that we’re building too many houses (or too many in the “wrong places”), or are we building too few? This divide has already been seen, with influential Tory MPs in ‘Red Wall’ areas saying that the Conservatives’ conservatism on housing delivery will cost them the votes of countless younger people.

The rise of the Lib Dems and Greens, as well as the ever-growing number of councils under No Overall Control (up from 14 in 2013 to 92 in 2023 – a 557% increase in 10 years), does make things look less certain. The Greens have highly nuanced housing policies, while Lib Dem councillors’ notorious NIMBY tendencies stand in stark contrast to their national housing target policy that is far beyond what the other main parties would offer.

The Lib Dems have a tried and tested approach: win councils, then turn them into campaigning organisations to win the local MP. This is the model that Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy used so well to grow the party in the 1990s and 2000s, and we’ll expect to see this happen again over the next year in areas like Guildford, Elmbridge, and Dacorum – all key commuter areas that usually would be ripe for housing growth.

Meanwhile, where the Greens lead councils it has been significantly harder to get planning applications through. In the most recent year for which data is available, these councils were well down the league table on the proportion of applications that were approved.

And for the No Overall Control areas – the devil will be in the detail: on paper, NOC councils rank second for the proportion of their applications that are granted, behind only the Conservatives. However, where the Greens and Lib Dems have leading roles in the coalitions it’s likely to be harder to get things through. Fortunately, our teams are expert at guiding clients through this!


5. It’s the ‘don’t knows’ and the switchers you need to watch out for.

Rather than focus on these local election results, it’s the ‘don’t knows’ you need to watch. Most polls exclude them, but they’re really the ones who will decide the next General Election.

About 18% of people haven’t decided who they’ll vote for: our polling from March 2023 shows that 39% of these ‘don’t knows’ voted Tory in 2019. If they went back, it would add 7ppt to the Tories’ polling numbers. The ‘don’t knows’ are all to play for – and winning them over is crucial.

As for the switchers, 17% of 2019 Tory voters now say they’d vote for Labour and, importantly, 20% of those who didn’t vote in 2019 say the same. Crossing that line is a big step – it will be very hard for the Tories to win these back.

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The ‘don’t knows’ are pretty crucial ahead of the election. In March 2023 we polled a representative sample of the GB population – the results were largely on parr with other polls, but the figures we were most interested in are those who don’t know how they’ll vote, and those who didn’t vote in 2019. These people are usually removed from opinion polls, but they are arguably the most interesting cohorts.

These groups will decide what to do as we get closer to the election – and these should be the ones that the parties try to appeal to – it’s easier to win them now than before they switch.

18% of our respondents don’t know who they’d vote for in an election, almost as many as those who said they will vote Conservative. This group is key for the Tories right now because 39% of them voted Conservative in 2019, and only 12% of them voted Labour. If this 39% went back, that’s 7ppt to add to the Tories.

We also found that more than 50% of those who didn’t vote in 2019 still won’t, or don’t know. Labour seems to be doing well in this group – 20% of 2019 non-voters would now vote Labour, compared to just 6% who would vote Tory.

Speaking of switchers, 17% of 2019 Tory voters saying they’ll now vote Labour is significant: they’ve very unlikely to go back – this chimes with the idea that many ‘lent’ the Tories their vote in 2019. But more worryingly is that only 50% of 2019 Tory voters say they’ll definitely vote Tory – compare that to Labour where 88% of their 2019 is still on side.

This suggests that the core vote is shored up now – if the parties are sensible their policies should be looking to win over those who have yet to make up their minds.



If you would like to find out more about the key trends and outcomes of the recent local elections or further discuss the year ahead, contact us here.