This week, Britain’s local council elections dominated national headlines. Whilst the term ‘expectations management’ was at the centre of most analysis, the nation’s leading parties failed to produce significant gains.
On Thursday, 150 council elections took place across the UK, alongside a handful of mayoral races. Prior to a mixed bag of results, many commentators had predicted a woeful performance from the Tories, in the face of Theresa May’s tumultuous premiership and the unexpected outcome of last year’s General Election. However, this did not materialise, with the party profiting from carefully crafted expectations management. At the base of each party’s chosen spin lines, the results were as follows:
- Labour won 2,350 seats, up 77.
- The Conservatives won 1,332, down 33.
- The Liberal Democrats won 536 seats, up 75.
- The Greens won 39 seats, up 8.
- UKIP won 3 seats, down 123.
As these results show, the day produced some clear winners and losers, with Britain’s two biggest parties offering relatively mediocre performances. On the other hand, smaller parties, such as the Liberal Democrats and UKIP, were pertinently affected by the local contest results.
It was perhaps the Liberal Democrats who profited the most from this year’s local elections. After being effectively washed away in 2017’s GE, the party made significant gains on a local level this week. Offering a strong performance in ‘remain’ favouring areas, the Lib Dems reclaimed Kingston-upon-Thames from the Tories whilst seizing its neighbour, Richmond. Gaining four councils may be a modest achievement when compared to Labour and the Conservatives. However, this is a considerably more promising result than previously anticipated by Britain’s ‘third party’ with leader, Vince Cable, stating: ‘It’s certainly the beginning of the comeback of the Lib Dems’, whilst pragmatically noting that this revival would not happen ‘overnight’.
Labour and the Conservatives failed to produce significant results, leaving their spin and ‘expectations management’ to do the talking, rather than the outcome itself. Whilst both parties took away seats from a dormant UKIP, few major surprises emerged. May survived her first large-scale electoral challenge since last year’s General Election and comparatively few seats changed hands. This was, however, a relief for May, in the context of ceaseless public scrutiny, cabinet scandals and the knowledge that the ruling party normally performs poorly in local elections. The Conservatives were heavily grateful towards strategic expectations management, which assured that the party outperformed relatively low predictions analysts and members had previously expressed.
Labour, on the other hand, claimed that its mediocre outcome had demonstrated a consolidated party position. Its hopes of claiming seats in Westminster and Wandsworth were dashed, although the party did take Plymouth from Conservative hands. Losing ground in areas such as Barnet, North London, Shadow Local Government Secretary, Andrew Gwynne, believed that the party’s recent anti-semitism row had plagued this particular outcome.
By far, the biggest loser of the night was UKIP. The party failed to retain a grand total of 123 seats. After previously profiting from the divisive context of a contentious Brexit discourse in 2014, this outcome indicates that many voters perceived the party as one which is (or was) single-issue driven. The party’s response was somewhat disillusioned, with former deputy chair, Suzanne Evans, focusing on how UKIP’s acquisition of two seats in Derby meant that it could still, to her, ‘put the cat amongst the pigeons’. However, for any kind of substantial influence on the political landscape, UKIP must learn from this and redefine itself rather than live in denial and disillusionment.