Local Elections 2018 and Narratives

My attention has been drawn to an article on the hyper-partisan website Skwawkbox, where it is claimed that [emphasis added]:

But a poll of real polls — an aggregate of actual election results in 2018, comprising the May local elections plus council by-elections throughout the year — paints a picture of a far stronger Labour Party than the usual Establishment narrative allows.

This article looks at the local nature of local elections, and why the Skwawkbox article is likely to be misleading.

In short

Labour notionally held most of the seats: In notional terms (accounting for boundary changes), Labour held about half of council seats up for election.

Small swing away from Labour between 2014 and 2018: Looking at the national equivalent vote share, Rallings & Thrasher suggest a small swing to the Conservatives.

By-elections show 16 net Conservatives losses: A compilation of local by-election results indicates Labour and the Conservatives have lost net seats.

Electoral Tapestry

In England, there is a confusing tapestry of different types of local councils, which have different compositions, functions and election cycles. This is not a system built for simple study.

On 3rd May 2018, 150 councils in England held elections:

This is a rough guide created by the House of Commons Library. (Source: House of Commons Library)

We should not focus on the number of seats won, or councils held, but should look the change in councillors and council control.

However, even headline changes could be misleading. In 2018, 42% of seats up for election were in London boroughs, but London is not 42% of England.

The BBC’s notional estimates (seeking to account for boundary changes) find Labour held over half of all councillor positions up for election in May 2018.

Whilst there was a large shift towards Labour in London, there was a relative shift to the Conservatives outside of London:

Rallings & Thrasher show the breakdown by different types of councils. (Source: Local Government Chronicle)

National equivalent vote share

The local nature of local elections is given passing mention in the article:

May’s local elections were more in Labour-held areas than in Tory-held seats.

This leads onto the following claim:

if Labour had ‘failed’, as the media attempts to portray it, they would have lost seats compared to a strong position, rather than gaining them and increasing their lead over the Tories.

In previous local elections, the main opposition party typically held a lead over the governing party (except in years with general elections).

This is plain when looking at Rallings & Thrasher’s national equivalent vote share by year (replaced by General Election results when it is held on the same day as local elections):

“Years with grey shading indicate that a General Election was held on the same day and in these years General Election vote share is shown.” (Source: House of Commons Library)

Between 2006 and 2009, the Conservatives (in opposition) had a local election lead in excess of 13 points over Labour (in government) in every year.

The national equivalent vote share suggests Labour (the opposition) were slightly behind the Conservatives (in government) in 2018.

Comparing to 2014, the national equivalent vote share in 2018 suggests a small swing from Labour to the Conservatives:

The Conservatives increased by seven points, compared to five for Labour. (Source: Local Government Chronicle)

By-election results in 2018, compiled by ‘Elections Maps UK’ on Twitter, suggest a small swing from Conservatives to Labour in those contests. However, Labour have suffered a net loss of one councillor in these by-elections.

Likely to be misleading

Local elections vary by what type of councils are up for elections, and what parties hold those seats.

Focusing on raw vote counts is likely to be misleading. Even headline changes could be misleading, as English local elections this year were heavily centred in London.

The national equivalent vote share suggests Labour were slightly behind the Conservatives, which is not the expected performance of the main opposition party.

This blog looks at the use of statistics in Britain and beyond. It is written by RSS Statistical Ambassador and Chartered Statistician @anthonybmasters.