Local council results foretold General Election

Throughout 2019, Labour’s local vote failed to impress – just five gains were made, only two of which were from the Conservatives. By contrast, Labour lost 18 seats, six of those defeats to the Conservatives.

The timeline of Labour’s struggle leading up to this General Election is illustrated by our by-election model. This uses the change in each party’s vote share from the previous May election, adjusting for the year in which the May election was held. Averaging vote share changes across multiple by-elections provides a national equivalent vote – a proxy for the vote intention responses obtained from surveys of public opinion. 

The model shows Labour were ahead of the Conservatives in March 2018 but thereafter the situation changed. The party remained relatively competitive with the Conservatives until a sudden and dramatic change of fortune between January and February 2019.

Labour’s estimated 33 per cent national vote share in January fell three percentage points in February. This coincided with the defeat in the Commons of the then Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal and a chorus of Labour MPs calling for a second referendum.

By the summer, the model shows the Liberal Democrats overtaking Labour as the Conservative party’s principal rival. By late November 2019, the Conservative lead over Labour had reached 11 percentage points, close to the General Election outcome.

Whatever future direction the party takes, Labour must improve its standing in local government. It has been 17 years since Labour had more councillors than the Conservatives, despite the latter being in power for most of the time since then. Conservative councillors currently form a majority on more than four in 10 councils; Labour, just one in four.

Such was the scale of Labour’s defeat on 12 December, it now must set new records next time. A swing of 11.8 per cent from the Conservatives is required for Labour to win the smallest majority. To put that into perspective, it is two points higher than Labour achieved in 1997 and more than double the next highest swing – Margaret Thatcher’s when ousting Labour in 1979.

In the build-up to Tony Blair’s victory in 1997, Labour amassed an army of more than 10,000 councillors – 1,000 more than the Conservative and Liberal Democrat totals combined. The best opportunity for Labour to progress on this front passed last May when it made a net loss of seats. It will be 2023 before that part of the electoral cycle is repeated.

In terms of by-elections, Labour faces both an opportunity and a threat. The opportunity is that the Liberal Democrats, too, are bruised and battered. The effect on local party campaigning is unknown but Labour should be setting its sights high. The threat is that, in many council areas, there are new Independent groups forming, many of which have appeal as vehicles for protest voting. 

Challenging Conservative dominance, both in local government and at Westminster, will be no easy matter.

local by-elections
Boston, Kirton & Frampton
CON HELD
4.5% over Ind
Turnout 55.9%
Boston, Skirbeck
CON HELD
27.8% over Lab
Turnout 36.9%
Bury, Church
CON HELD
19.3% over Lab
Turnout 69.8%
Camden, Haverstock
LAB HELD
42.7% over Green
Turnout 62%
Cardiff, Llanishen
CON GAIN FROM LAB
8.6% over Lab
Turnout 27%
Chichester, Loxwood
CON GAIN FROM LIB DEM
31.9% over Lib Dem
Turnout 29.4%
Corby, Weldon & Gretton
CON HELD
9.9% over Lab
Turnout 65.3%
Dover, Guston, Kingsdown & St Margaret's
CON HELD
38% over Lab
Turnout 72.2%
East Northamptonshire, Higham Ferrers Chichele
CON HELD
26.6% over Lib Dem
Turnout 71.6%
East Northamptonshire, Higham Ferrers Lancaster
CON HELD
25.3% over Lib Dem
Turnout 81.9%
Exeter, Topsham
CON HELD
11.2% over Lab
Turnout 75.7%
Flintshire, Trelawnyd & Gwaenysgor
CON HELD
19.9% over Lab
Turnout 73.5%
Hackney, Clissold
LAB HELD
32.5% over Green
Turnout 72.1%
Horsham, Storrington & Washington
CON HELD
34.9% over Lib Dem
Turnout 72.9%
Hounslow, Feltham North
CON GAIN FROM LAB
1.1% over Lab
Turnout 53.7%
Hounslow, Heston West
LAB HELD
39.8% over Con
Turnout 57.2%
Huntingdonshire, Alconbury
CON HELD
40.2% over Lib Dem
Turnout 77.9%
Isle Of Wight, Newport West
CON HELD
11.6% over Lab
Turnout 68.2%
Islington, St. Georges
LAB HELD
6.5% over Green
Turnout 67.3%
Kettering, Desborough St. Giles
CON HELD
16.8% over Lab
Turnout 69.6%
Kings Lynn & W Norfolk, Upwell & Delph
CON GAIN FROM IND
46.5% over Lab
Turnout 65.5%
Kirklees, Colne Valley
CON GAIN FROM LAB
12.1% over Lab
Turnout 72.9%
Kirklees, Dewsbury East
LAB HELD
8% over Con
Turnout 57.4%
Lancaster, Overton
CON HELD
9.9% over Lab
Turnout 66.8%
Leeds, Wetherby
CON HELD
38.8% over Lib Dem
Turnout 75.3%
Leicestershire, Cosby & Countesthorpe
CON HELD
43.2% over Lab
Turnout 76%
Lincoln, Witham
CON HELD
29.8% over Lab
Turnout 66.7%
Liverpool, Clubmoor
LAB HELD
80.6% over Lib
Turnout 65.8%
Liverpool, Picton
LAB HELD
72.5% over Green
Turnout 57%
Newcastle-Under-Lyme, Holditch & Chesterton
LAB HELD
6.6% over Con
Turnout 50.1%
Oxfordshire, Wallingford
GREEN GAIN FROM IND
10% over Con
Turnout 30.2%
Reading, Kentwood
CON HELD
8.1% over Lab
Turnout 65.1%
Rhondda Cynon Taff, Ynyshir
LAB GAIN FROM PLAID CYMRU
10.3% over PC
Turnout 30.5%
Salford, Pendlebury
LAB HELD
18.3% over Con
Turnout 54.9%
Staffordshire, Watling South
CON HELD
44.1% over Lab
Turnout 65.8%
Tameside, Denton West
LAB HELD
16.1% over Con
Turnout 59.8%
Tamworth, Mercian
CON HELD
30.1% over Lab
Turnout 62.6%
Warwick, Warwick Myton & Heathcote
CON HELD
14.5% over Lab
Turnout 75%
West Lancashire, Birch Green
LAB HELD
31% over Skelm Ind
Turnout 22.1%
West Sussex, Bourne
CON HELD
12.8% over Lib Dem
Turnout 28.9%
Wiltshire, Trowbridge Lambrok
LIB DEM GAIN FROM CON
15.5% over Con
Turnout 29.5%
Worthing, Salvington
CON HELD
39.6% over Lib Dem
Turnout 61.7%

For all the latest by-election results in full, including a spreadsheet of voting statistics, please download the spreadsheet of results.

More in this section:

Comparing local results and national polling

Council by-elections give insights into the detail of local politics – vacancies caused by incumbents tiring of the struggle to and consensus, parties under tension and breaking apart, issues dividing local communities, personalities battling party organisations.

A volatile electorate

The latest British Election Study report highlights just how volatile the electorate has become. When it began in the early 1960s, just one in eight voters changed their allegiance between General Elections; now some 50 per cent say they voted in different ways between 2010 and 2017.