• Development Intelligence

Local election analysis – Apathy and the protest vote wins

Overall comment

The local elections on 2 May was the first act of a three act Brexit infused play where the Tories and Labour will receive an absolute kicking. The 2017 General Election result, where the two main parties took more than 80% of the votes, seems but a distant dream. The three acts look like this:

  • 2 May local elections – The Tories received the traditional kicking that political parties nine years into Government historically receive. Quelle surprise. The 1300 seats lost were in the upper range of all the dire predictions, but with a failed Brexit to date, that too was hardly a surprise. However against predictions, Labour lost seats and councils too, so Corbyn is in fact going backwards when in reality he should be piling on the seats and councils won.

  • 23 May Euro election – Mr Farangitis and his Brexit Party must be rubbing their hands with glee. The Brexiteers will be loudly on the march proclaiming that our Remain Parliament needs to back off and allow the 2016 “will of the people” to be delivered.

  • 6 June Peterborough by-election – This Leave voting constituency will go to the polls to replace Fiona Onasanya, its previous speeding Corbynista liar of an MP. This should be Mr Farangitis’ big scalp, the big Brexit Party breakthrough moment. But then, how many times has old Nige promised this over the last two decades and then come up short. If the Brexit Party can’t win this then it’s probably never going to win anything.

What was in play?

In England, 8374 seats were up for grabs with a further 460 council seats in Northern Ireland being contested. There were no local elections in Wales, Scotland or London. The breakdown was as follows:

  • 1 regional mayor – North of Tyne (new role)

  • 5 local mayoral contests – Bedford, Copeland, Leicester, Mansfield, Middlesbrough

  • 33 metropolitan authorities – a third of seats were contested (727)

  • 119 district councils – all seats were up for grabs (5063)

  • 49 district councils – a third of seats were fought (704)

  • 30 unitary authorities – contesting all seats (1595)

  • 17 unitary authorities – a third were contested (285)

Why is analysis of these results actually quite tricky?

Analysing these local election results is really a lot more complex than one might immediately assume. Why so?

1. These are not normal times – Kind of needs to be said straight off. In mid-term local elections, governing parties get hammered and opposition parties do well, particularly after the Government has been in power for nearly ten years. To this, overlay the madness of Brexit, the voter punishment of a Government that has failed to deliver on its major (only?) policy, an official opposition that is led by an anti-Semitic, vote-losing Marxist, the hype around two new parties (The Brexit Party and Change UK which weren’t even really standing) and this madness is multiplied many, many, many times over. Again: These are not normal times!

2. Voter turnout – The 2015 election day was also a General Election with turnout at 66%. This year’s local election turnout was 36.3% That’s quite a statistical difference.

3. Boundary changes – The last time these seats were up for grabs was May 2015. In many places, boundary reviews since then have made any simple direct comparisons very problematic indeed.

So what actually happened?


  • Realistic expectation – Sitting governments, nine years in power, get a massive kicking.

  • Party spin – Despite allegedly even Tory constituency chairman struggling to vote Tory and apocryphal tales of Tory activists tearing up their membership cards in disgust over Brexit, the Tories fielded candidates for 96% of local election seats, compared to 93% in 2015 and 2011. Overwhelming the largest number of seats up for election were Tory held, so they were always going to be the most affected.

  • Analysis – Lost around the upper average of what was predicted which, given Brexit and Government chaos, is probably not a bad result, on balance.

  • DI rating – 4 out of 10, entirely predictably bad but could have been much much worse.


  • Realistic expectation – Oppositions at this stage in the electoral cycle should be winning and winning big. Thatcher did it. Blair did it. Cameron did it. Even William Hague did it, for God’s sake!

  • Party spin – A slightly disappointing result. But let’s try and distract you by looking over there where we’ve actually won something!

  • Analysis – It only contested around 77% of the available seats, up from 75% in 2015 and 72% in 2011. With its claimed half a million members, 77% seems like a weak, modest or incompetent effort (delete as appropriate). The truth is Labour is going backwards at every single election. This is not a party on the cusp of government. This is a party that is retreating more and more to its core vote, which is itself confused as to whether it’s a pro-Remain or pro-Leave party.

  • DI rating – 1 out of 10, showing no signs of any electoral breakthrough whatsoever.

Lib Dems

  • Realistic expectation – They should have hoovered up lots of protest votes, done well in Remain voting areas, but struggled in Leave voting areas.

  • Party spin – A brilliant night, back in business, a strong vote for Remain.

  • Analysis – The comparison with the last time these council seats were contested was always going to be overly flattering as 2015 was a 40-year low point for the Lib Dems, their second worst electoral result in modern times. And really all they achieved was to re-win some seats they previously lost as part of the wider 2019 protest vote. Interestingly, a good number of the seats they picked up were won because the Tory and/or Labour vote collapsed, not because the Lib Dem vote went up. In fact in some seats it went down but they still won. So, it was classic protest vote stuff. This was not a ringing endorsement of their signature Remain policy; they won despite it not because of it. But winning local election protest votes isn’t a serious election strategy as they are always temporary and those same protest voters drop you at the next inconvenient election. Ask Nick Clegg.

  • DI rating – 5 out of 10, overhyped success, so despite lazy commentariat analysis, this is not a major breakthrough.

Other Protest vote parties – Greens/Independents

  • Realistic expectation – They should have picked up lots of seats, profiting from the two main parties’ decline.

  • Party spin – Huge backing for Remain, we’re on the cusp of something big.

  • Analysis – Their spin is just nonsense. Tactical protest voting ebbs and flows. Sometimes they pick up some votes. End of. Interestingly, Independents gained almost as many seats as the Lib Dems which shows how this election was all about the protest vote.

  • DI rating – 6 out of 10, more overhyped success.


  • Realistic expectation – They should be doing well off the back of Leave voter Brexit frustration.

  • Party spin – Irrelevant nonsense.

  • Analysis – They are dying. Their lurch to the Tommy Robinson vote coupled with the relaunch of Nigel Farage’s career means they continue their death spiral.

  • DI rating – 0 out of 10, a BNP-like electoral death looms.