Curtice: Sheer scale of defeat will worry Conservatives

Sir John Curtice

The local elections have for the most part been deeply disappointing for the Conservatives.

Some losses were inevitable. Most of the seats being elected on Thursday were previously contested in May 2021, when the Conservatives were six points ahead of Labour in the national polls.

But the scale of their reverses will worry them.

They have lost nearly half of the council seats they were trying to defend. With just one council (Salford) to declare, the party has lost 473 seats.

It's only a little short of the 500 figure that, before Thursday, analysts suggested would confirm the party’s weak position in the polls.

Record low

In any event, Conservative losses have ensured the party has narrowly trailed the Liberal Democrats in terms of seats won – the first time that has happened since 1996, just before the party crashed to defeat in the 1997 election.

Meanwhile, the detailed voting figures in 800 key wards collected by the BBC suggest its local election performance is one of its worst ever.

According to the BBC’s projected national share, an estimate of how the country would have voted if everywhere had had a local election last year, the Conservatives’ tally was just 25%.

That represents a one point drop on the same estimate last year and equals the record low previously recorded in 2013 and 1995.

However, Labour’s projected share has also fallen a point on last year to 34%, meaning the party’s nine point lead over their principal rivals has not changed. Sir Keir Starmer has still not bettered the 38% Labour scored in 2012 under Ed Miliband’s leadership.

Meanwhile, in a relatively modest performance, the Liberal Democrats were on 17%, down three points on last year when the party hit 20% for the first time since entering into coalition with the Conservatives in 2010.

But the change in party support has not been the same everywhere.

Not least of the reasons why the Conservatives have lost so many council seats is that the party lost ground most heavily in wards where it was previously strongest.

At the same time, both Labour and the Liberal Democrats improved most on their 2021 tally in wards where they started off second to the Conservatives.

The Conservatives have also been losing more than one-in-three of the police commissioner posts they were trying to defend. In England, the swing since 2021 from Conservative to Labour in these contests so far is 9.5 points, even higher than the 7.5% swing recorded in the local ballot boxes.

Defeat a bitter pill

But there was one bright spot for Rishi Sunak’s party. The Conservatives’ Ben Houchen narrowly held on to the Tees Valley mayoral position in an area that once was dominated by Labour.

However, polling suggests his success was more of a testament to his personal popularity than that of his party.

Meanwhile, Saturday evening delivered the bitter pill for the Conservatives of Andy Street narrowly losing the contest in the West Midlands, while hopes that the party’s standard bearer in London, Susan Hall, might pull off a shock win at Sadiq Khan’s expense soon evaporated.

Labour’s vote did not hold up everywhere, however.

The party suffered a loss of support in particular in many of those wards that have a relatively large Muslim population - a pattern that cost the party control of Oldham.

It seems that Sir Keir Starmer’s stance on Gaza has cost his party support.

Meanwhile, the Conservatives suffered another serious parliamentary by-election reverse in Blackpool South.

The party’s support fell by as much as 32.1 points, the third biggest ever drop in Conservative support in a by-election.

The party’s support has fallen by 25 points or more in no less than eight by-elections in this parliament.

Reform UK and Green boost

Much of the damage to the Conservatives’ fortunes in Blackpool appears to have been done by Reform UK, whose 17% of the vote is the party’s best result yet in a by-election.

More broadly, Reform on average won 12% in the limited number of local council wards it contested, up from 5.5% last year, extra votes that seem to have been secured primarily at the Conservatives’ expense.

Labour will take the results so far as further evidence that voters are looking for a change of government – including not least in parts of Britain that voted heavily for Brexit in 2016.

In particular the party gained Hartlepool, where famously it lost a parliamentary by-election to the Conservatives exactly three years ago.

The Greens also have some cause for celebration. Not only have they gained seats, but their vote is up on last year and is on a par with their previous best local election performance in 2019.

But the big message from the local ballot boxes is that the Conservatives remain in deep electoral trouble.

John Curtice is Professor of Politics, University of Strathclyde, and Senior Fellow, National Centre for Social Research and ‘The UK in a Changing Europe’. Hem is also co-host of the Trendy podcast.

Analysis by Patrick English, Stephen Fisher and Robert Ford.