Yardsticks to watch at local elections as Labour eyes Swindon
We’ll send you a myFT Daily Digest email rounding up the latest UK local elections news every morning.
This article is an on-site version of our Inside Politics newsletter. Sign up here to get the newsletter sent straight to your inbox every weekday
Good morning. Keir Starmer is off to Swindon this morning to launch the Labour party’s local election campaign.
Part of what political parties are trying to do with their election campaign launches is shape how journalists will cover the local elections. By starting his campaign in Swindon, the Labour leader hopes that reporters will assess his campaign based on what happens in Swindon.
It’s true to say that Labour’s path to Downing Street runs through Swindon’s two parliamentary constituencies — seats which Labour had lost in 2010, and almost won in 2017. Both South Swindon and North Swindon have remained consistently Conservative these past 13 years.
And one reasonable yardstick of Labour electoral performance is whether they gain council seats in Swindon on May 4. However, there are others. Some thoughts on that below.
Inside Politics is edited by Georgina Quach. Follow Stephen on Twitter @stephenkb and please send gossip, thoughts and feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org
Yardsticks, get your yardsticks
Local elections are, in part, about what is going on locally. But they are also a reflection on how the parties are performing nationally. A good way to see it is the difference between climate and weather. How the political parties are faring nationwide sets the climate, but if a council is particularly competent or incompetent, that may set the weather.
For instance, to take two examples from last year’s local elections: the Conservative council of Wandsworth was able to hold on against Labour for many years, even when the Labour party was doing very well both nationally and in the area’s parliamentary seats. This was because the council was well run. But ultimately those national factors meant that the local council could not hold on in 2022 and now Labour runs Wandsworth.
At the other end of the scale, you have Croydon Council. In a very good year for the Labour party nationally, the local council’s failings — captured well in this excellent piece by William Wallis — meant the Labour party lost Croydon even as they were making gains across the country.
But overall, as Peter Kellner sets out in a must-read piece for Prospect, once all the votes have been counted, the local elections will give us a pretty good sense of whether or not the polls are right. How should we do this? Kellner explains:
Let’s cast aside the figures that generate most attention as the results flow in: the number of seats that each party gains and loses. To see why, come to Devon. In the east of the county is the new town of Cranbrook. It will elect three councillors to East Devon District Council. Last time round, in 2019, 818 electors cast their votes — or 273 per councillor. An hour’s drive away is Peverell, close to the centre of Plymouth. Four years ago, its 4,605 voters elected a single councillor. When variations are so great, simple numbers of gains and losses can be misleading — especially this year, when many councils have rejigged their ward boundaries.
Instead, the figures to watch are the “National Equivalent Vote” (NEV) shares for each party. These explore the pattern of gained and lost votes for each party across the country, and estimate how the whole of Britain would have voted had elections been held everywhere.
We should expect that the Liberal Democrats will overperform their opinion poll rating and Labour will underperform. This is because at a council level, anti-Conservative voters have more choice and are more able to vote for their preferred option, rather than pick the largest non-Tory party. That benefits the Liberal Democrats and the Greens. But as Kellner sets out, a NEV that has Labour at 40 per cent, and a 15-point lead over the Conservatives, suggests that the party’s best polls are right and they are on course for a thumping win, while the Conservatives should be relieved if they can keep the lead to around 10 points. That suggests that while they have challenges, the Tories are still well-placed to deny Labour a majority or even to pull off a fifth general election victory.
When all is Ed and done
Also launching his local election campaign: Ed Davey, the Liberal Democrat leader, with the now-customary photo op in which Davey wields a big yellow prop to smash up a blue object. (I am concerned, frankly, that at this rate, Davey will end up cutting up an Yves Klein painting with a yellow machete.)
Davey is doing this because, as the UK’s third party, the Liberal Democrats have to fight for every scrap of coverage they can get, and a fun and goofy photo shoot is a good way to get media organisations to cover you.
Wacky stunts can backfire if you are Rishi Sunak (whose biggest asset is that he is already the prime minister, and is therefore harmed by too many stunts) or Keir Starmer (who needs to present himself as a prime minister in waiting) but they are win-win if you are the Liberal Democrat leader.
Now try this
I am very much enjoying Apple Music’s new service, Apple Classical. Almost every bit of music comes with an informative and enjoyable summary of the composer’s intentions and life story. Better still, it allows you to very easily search through different recordings in order to find the best recording and to shape your own physical library.
I’m off to see one of my favourite pieces of music at the Royal Festival Hall tonight — Jean Sibelius’s fifth symphony — and it’s been an absolute breeze to cycle through different recordings. (When I go to a concert, I like to listen to different recordings beforehand to get a better sense of how the piece changes under different conductors.)
My favourite so far is the 1981 recording by Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia Orchestra, which you can find wherever you stream even if you aren’t using Apple Classical.
Top stories today
Britain’s ‘long-term failure’ to invest | The UK’s low level of government investment has left the country in a “poorer” state compared with other nations, with not enough hospital beds, poor transport links and inadequate housing, according to a new report.
Horizon re-entry under threat | The UK’s bid to rejoin the EU’s Horizon research programme, expected to be one of the early “wins” of the recent Northern Ireland trade deal, is threatened by a dispute over money.
London and Brussels join forces on carbon border tax | Britain and the EU are boosting co-ordination of efforts to tackle climate change, in a sign of warming relations between the two sides. They could co-ordinate moves on a new carbon border tax that would place a levy on imported carbon-intensive goods arriving in Europe.
Sworn in | Scotland’s new first minister Humza Yousaf has unveiled his cabinet, rewarding colleagues who backed his bid to lead the Scottish National party and retaining key figures who served under his predecessor Nicola Sturgeon.