Who is better at fighting elections?

Labour’s search for a convincing explanation of its woeful General Election showing focuses mainly on Brexit and leadership. 

Understandably, there are few within the party that dare voice the opinion that its principal rival is simply better at winning elections, and that it should try to discover the reasons for that and alter its own strategies accordingly.

We noted Labour’s poor by-election performance throughout 2019. For much of the time, its vote was in retreat rather than advancing. It gained just five seats but lost more than three times that number. 

Whoever wins the leadership election, however, needs a much broader perspective, encompassing the period before and after the EU referendum and before Jeremy Corbyn took over. 

Since the 2010 General Election, there have been more than 2,000 council by-elections. Labour has recorded 158 gains against 108 losses – a net gain of 50 seats in more than nine years. The balance sheet against the Conservatives shows a net gain of 37 seats. Against the Liberal Democrats, there is a one-seat deficit.

Labour’s supporters may argue that the main May local elections, not by-elections, offer a better valuation. The national equivalent vote shows Labour below 40 per cent in every year since 2010 and below 30 per cent in two of those years.

In four of the nine years, the Conservatives have finished ahead of Labour with a fifth year tied. By contrast, Blair’s New Labour polled 47 per cent and 43 per cent in the two years prior to its 1997 landslide victory.

The situation in terms of councillor numbers and councils controlled again shows Labour under-performing for a party that has spent years attacking the parties of national government. Currently, it still has 1,000 fewer councillors than the Conservative party. Only around a quarter of councils in Britain are run by a Labour majority administration but more than a third have Conservative administrations.

It is not fashionable in some parts of Labour to refer to the Blair era, but it does expose the party’s decline over the past decade. Labour registered its peak in 1996, when it held almost one in every two council seats and ran a similar proportion of local authorities in Britain.  Although only one part of the explanation for the following year’s General Election outcome, this local government representation demonstrated its fitness for national office in the eyes of many swing voters.

The local electoral cycle means that it will be some years before even a revitalised Labour party can gain enough seats to become the dominant party in local government. Indeed, it faces immediate challenges next May in areas where Labour incumbent MPs were displaced by Conservative challengers last December. The effect on party morale will be severe if council seats follow the same pattern. 

But the Conservatives are not the only threat to Labour. Small, community-based parties – some born out of discontent with Labour-run councils – have had success. The Liberal Democrats can never be dismissed, despite the party’s failure to break through at the parliamentary level.

All the leadership candidates have promised to reflect upon Labour’s current problems; understanding the reasons for its lack of progress in local government should be prioritised.

local by-elections
Bristol, Brislington East
10% over Con
Turnout 23.6%
Brent, Alperton
9.2% over Lab
Turnout 34%
Brent, Barnhill
0.8% over Lab
Turnout 22%
Brent, Wembley Central
24% over Con
Turnout 27.6%


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


From council to Commons

The pride of Newcastle