Team Johnson sees a way to hold onto power says Matthew Goodwin who is Professor of Politics at the University of Kent and Fellow at the Legatum Institute.
It would be easy to conclude that Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party is on its way out. Shortly before yesterday’s Queen’s Speech, the incumbent party lost more than one-quarter of all local council seats it was defending. It is being chased out of the southern Blue Wall. Labour has cemented and expanded its dominance over London and is now rebuilding in Scotland.
And the signs of a much stronger progressive alliance in British politics can be seen in the continuing dominance of the SNP, a solid performance by Labour and Plaid Cymru in Wales, a resurgence of support for the Liberal Democrats, and the best local election result for the Greens on record.
Had the 2022 local elections been held across the entire country then Labour would have a national equivalent vote of 35% compared with the Conservative’s 32%. Were this replicated at a general election, it would likely deliver a hung parliament and make Keir Starmer the first Labour Prime Minister since Gordon Brown.
For all of these reasons, in recent days MPs, columnists and pollsters have been writing Johnson’s political obituary, urging him to go before he ruins the Conservative brand forever. The only way forward is to change course — and to do so quickly.
Only, not so fast. Look more closely at what just unfolded and there are good reasons why Team Johnson — after everything — should be feeling quietly confident about the next general election. For a start, many people are exaggerating the predictive power of local elections: in reality, they are a poor guide to what will happen at general elections.
People tend to forget this today, but Labour similarly won the national equivalent vote at the local elections in 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, and then again in 2016, before drawing even with the Conservatives in 2018 and 2019.
Ed Miliband’s Labour Party made striking gains at local elections between 2011 and 2014, winning an impressive 857 seats and gaining 26 councils in 2011, before winning another 823 seats and 42 councils in 2012. Yet Miliband never saw Number 10.
At all three of the general elections held during this period — in 2015, 2017, and 2019 — it was the Conservatives, not Labour, who won majorities or were returned to power as the largest party. Turn the clock even further back and you will find other warnings from history.
Even under the radical Left-winger Michael Foot, Labour consistently outperformed Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party at the local elections between 1980 and 1982, including when Thatcher lost more than 1,100 seats in 1981, shortly before she won her second landslide.
And five years later, in 1986, Thatcher again lost around 1,000 council seats before winning her third and final landslide the following year. So too did John Major, in 1991, shortly before he won his surprising majority in 1992. And while the Conservatives routinely finished ahead of New Labour at local elections in the early 2000s, their share of the vote in 2005 lagged well behind their national equivalent vote at the local elections.
In short, local elections are like the weatherman: worth listening to but they do not always give us an accurate forecast. Even if you do view them as a useful indicator it is also worth remembering that, historically, opposition parties that have gone on to win the next general election attract a national equivalent vote share of around 40% and enjoy double digit leads over the governing party.
This is what Tony Blair achieved in 1996, when his 14-point lead over John Major at the local elections cleared the path for his massive majority. It is also what David Cameron achieved in 2009, when he fell just short of the 40% mark but still led Brown by 15-points before emerging as the leader of the largest party in 2010.
In fact, at no point between 1979 and 2022 has an opposition party managed to overturn an incumbent government after attracting a national equivalent vote of less than 40%. Labour, for the record, just polled 35% — the same share that Jeremy Corbyn achieved in 2018.
This should be a cause for concern in Team Starmer. After everything — after the Covid-19 pandemic, Partygate, Cummingsgate, Rishigate, scandals, inflation, and a rapidly escalating cost-of-living crisis — Labour attracted just a five-point lead over the Conservatives. A five-point lead.
Those who compare politics today with the Nineties, arguing that a string of Tory scandals will propel Labour into office, miss a crucial point. At the local elections between 1993 and 1996, Blair and Labour averaged a 14-point lead over the Conservatives.
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He's not leaving. Credit: Leon Neal/Getty