This article was first published in the Financial Times
There is a ritual, and even a specialised vocabulary, for midterm local elections in the UK. In advance, they are always a “crucial test” of the government’s popularity, and the opposition’s ability to turn poll ratings into votes. Next comes expectation management, when incumbent parties brief that they will lose practically all their councillors, and the challengers claim they expect to gain hardly any, in the forlorn hope of bamboozling political reporters.
Then comes the count, always a “grim night” for the governing party on which it loses “swaths” of seats in “former strongholds”, despite claims that its vote is “holding up well” in much of the country – though clearly less so in places that are “difficult territory for us”. Finally comes the “aftermath”, in which the losing party claims to have listened and “learnt lessons”, while privately holding an “inquest” into its “disastrous performance”.
This routine does not mean local elections don’t matter. As well as the obvious point that councils spend billions of pounds on important public services, an unexpectedly good or bad local election result can have an important psychological effect on a party. More tangibly, a strong local government presence can help win seats in parliament. Councillors can keep a party’s profile up and show they are working locally. They also constitute a ready-made team of leafleteers and door-knockers – still an essential campaign tool.
Nowhere does this matter more than in the marginal seats, as demonstrated in the February by-election in Eastleigh, where the Liberal Democrats’ dominance of the borough helped deliver victory for Mike Thornton, a local councillor.
According to my recent survey of 19,000 voters in 213 marginals, Lib Dem support is heavily localised. National polls put the party on less than half the 24 per cent it achieved at the 2010 general election. But in seats the Lib Dems are defending against the Tories, the party’s share of the vote almost doubles when people are asked to think about their own constituency and candidates, rather than simply how they would vote in an election tomorrow.
Again, local activity is the key: incumbent Lib Dems outpolled MPs from other parties on all measures, especially being “a local person with roots in the area”, “friendly and approachable”, and “keeping in touch through newsletters and leaflets”. Even so, my poll suggests that the erosion in Lib Dem support could help David Cameron take 17 seats from his coalition partners in England and Wales.
The news is rather less heartening for the Conservatives where Labour are their main rivals. Ed Miliband’s party is ahead in all of the clusters of seats in which it will challenge sitting Tories at a general election, with the biggest swings in the Thames estuary, the Midlands and parts of the north. Labour are making slightly less headway in the southern towns and suburbs where the party has traditionally struggled, except under Tony Blair.
My poll found that Labour would gain a total of 109 seats, including 93 from the Tories, giving Mr Miliband 367 seats in the House of Commons – a majority of 84. Ministers including Chloe Smith, MP for Norwich North, Anna Soubry in Broxtowe, Edward Timpson in Crewe & Nantwich, and Esther McVey in Wirral West would be vulnerable, as would serial rebel Stewart Jackson in Peterborough and Margot James, MP for Stourbridge, who was appointed earlier this week to the Number 10 policy unit.
There are two important points to make about this. First, this is a snapshot not a prediction. A great deal can change in two years, and the polls are likely to narrow as the choice of who should run the country becomes more immediate.
Second, at the time of my research the national polls were suggesting a Labour majority of about 114. In other words, Labour seems to be doing rather less well in the marginal seats than in the country as a whole. This may seem small comfort to the Tories but it matters; parties expecting a big victory, like Labour in 1997, tend to do better in their target seats than they do nationally.
Although the 2010 result was disappointing for the Conservatives, the party’s targeting strategy was a success. The plan – for which I, then a deputy chairman of the party, was responsible – helped us to win 23 more Labour seats and nine more Lib Dem seats than we would have done on a uniform swing. Indeed, had it not been for our stronger performance in the marginal seats, Labour would have been the largest party and would have been able to continue in government.
No doubt to their delight, voters in marginal constituencies receive a great deal more attention from political parties than anyone else. While most seats are all but unwinnable or unlosable, it is rational that parties should concentrate on the relatively few that are closely fought.
This does not, or should not, mean that other voters should be ignored. Targeting can help maximise the number of seats a party wins with any given level of national support, but it is no substitute for broad appeal. It is 21 years this month since the last time the Conservative party managed to amass the popular support needed to win an election outright.
In 2010, the party had not done enough to show that the change uncertain voters wanted was the change we were offering. Even now, 16 years after they dismissed us from office, many people who would once have been natural supporters still do not think the party is on their side. Mr Cameron faces the unenviable task of showing, at a time of austerity, that his party is not just for those who have already achieved material success, while holding on to Tory loyalists and luring back those threatening to defect to Ukip.
The news is not all bad for Conservatives. The traditional fear of Labour once neutralised by Tony Blair – that the party would once again spend more than the country can afford – has returned. This will help Mr Cameron, but it will not be enough. For the next two years everything the Tories do must show they have the right priorities, display strong leadership, prove they are on the side of the right people, and offer continual reassurance about their motives. It’s a tall order. And time is not on our side.