Newbury will capture the headlines but signify little. In theory, local elections are different. They have real consequences: for local government, taxes and services. But for most voters County Hall is invisible, county council functions confusing, and the provenance of local tax levels hard to disentangle. The 40 per cent who bother to vote use the elections to punish national government or parade their party loyalties.
So the Conservatives will almost certainly lose votes, seats and control of councils. Putting a national interpretation on these losses, however, will be tricky. Turnout is only half the general election level. Scotland and the metropolitan boroughs, including London, are not voting. The comparative baseline is 1989, when the equivalent elections were last fought, not the 1992 general election. Independents and uncontested seats muddy the waters.
On tonight's BBC and ITN election programmes the party politicians will fasten on these ambiguities to explain away disappointments and exaggerate successes. The following is offered as a bluffer's guide to the patter of the party spin doctors.
Liberal Democrat claims
(assuming they do well)
'Newbury is a turning point, dawn of new politics, etc' - False. The Lib Dems gained the even safer Conservative seats of Eastbourne and Ribble Valley at by- elections and lost them in the general election less than 18 months later. Since 1979 the Conservative vote has typically fallen 16 points in such by-elections. Anything less in Newbury would be tolerable for the Conservatives, even if they lose.
In the psephologically most comparable recent by-elections - Surrey South West, Ryedale and Eastbourne - the Liberal vote rose 17 points. A swing of 16 to 17 per cent to the Lib Dems, producing a result of something like Liberal Democrat 54 per cent to Conservative 39 per cent, would be par for
the course, not a 'sensation'.
'We are steadily strengthening our base' - Partly true. A net gain in seats will lift the number of Liberal Democrat councillors to a new post-war high. In last year's general election the Lib Dem vote held up best where they had had local election successes. But in general elections substantial chunks of their local vote revert to the Conservatives. A further advance tonight will entrench them as the Conservatives' main challengers in swathes of rural and small-town England - but as a permanent opposition, not a serious threat.
(assuming they do badly in local elections)
'The low turnout makes the results meaningless' - Largely false. Abstention affects both the biggest parties about equally. It tends to hurt the Government more than the Opposition but only fractionally so when the Conservatives are in office. The parties' performance in local elections (after adjustments for the political composition of the areas holding them) is usually in line with the national polls. Turnout was low in 1989, too, so voting shifts and seat turnover reflect real change.
Only if the public's growing disillusion with current party politics produced a sharp dip in turnout - to say 35 per cent - could the Conservatives reasonably cite it as a factor. But that would amount to conceding that their supporters stayed at home in even larger proportions than usual - which is significant in itself.
'The Conservatives did unusually well in 1989. Losses are therefore to be expected this time' - False. In 1989 the Conservatives did pick up additional seats
and gained control in seven counties, but that was because they fared unusually badly in the previous elections in 1985. The 1989 result was in fact typical for the mid-term of a Conservative government.
A loss of seats and councils tonight would be a historically poor performance - worse than in 1981, when unemployment was biting savagely and the SDP had burst upon the scene, and worse than in 1973, during the dog days of Edward Heath's U- turn government.
Labour's excuses (assuming only modest gains)
'The county shires are Tory territory and therefore signify little about Labour's national support and prospects' - Misleading. True, today's elections exclude Scotland and the northern metropolitan boroughs, where Labour is strong. In the 1992 general election the Con:Lab:Lib Dem vote divided 47:30:21 in the county shires as against 43:35:18 in Great Britain as a whole. But the county shires are more than thatched cottages and stockbroker villages. They contain virtually all the marginal seats, especially in the urban South (the Basildons, Sloughs, and Swindons) that Labour must gain to win the next election.
What matters is whether Labour's advance in the shires since 1989 matches its national advance. The polls this month put Labour's national support seven points higher than four years ago (46 per cent compared with 39 per cent) and Conservative support 10 points lower (32 per cent compared with 42 per cent) - a swing of 8.5 per cent. A much smaller swing today would suggest Labour is making least headway where it matters.
Combined Conservative / Labour excuses
'The Liberals always do better in local than in general elections' - True, but exaggerated. Liberal Democrats pick up personal, tactical and protest votes that are denied them in general elections. But they lack the troops of strong partisans on whose loyal turnout the two main parties can always rely. Their local vote bonus is rarely more than three percentage points.
Quite how badly might the Conservatives do? An analysis of three-cornered local by-elections since January by Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher of Plymouth University points to swings of 2.5 per cent from Conservative to Labour and of 6 per cent from Conservative to Lib Dem. That would be insufficient to deliver any council to Labour's sole control but would deprive the Conservatives of eight councils they normally run: Kent, Somerset (outright Lib Dem gains), Lincolnshire, Hertfordshire, Essex, Dorset, East Sussex and Cambridgeshire.
Last week's Mori/Times poll in the shires points to larger swings from the Conservatives: 7.5 per cent to the Lib Dems and 5.5 per cent to Labour. In that case the Conservatives would also lose Hampshire, Devon and the hitherto impregnable Norfolk and Suffolk while Labour gained Cumbria, Avon, Cheshire and Northamptonshire.
Conservative control of upper- or single-tier local authorities would be virtually wiped out. The Tories would be left in sole charge of West Sussex, Buckinghamshire and Surrey, plus 12 London boroughs and Trafford in Greater Manchester - their weakest position in local government on record.
The Government, however, can always resort to the all-purpose, all-party excuse: 'This year's local results are no guide to the next general election.' And this is indubitably true.
The author is professor of government at Essex University.
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