Can council elections predict general elections?

17 Apr 2017


In just over two weeks the  British public will go to the polls in hundreds of council elections. It will be the first chance for the electorate to have their say on Theresa May, how Brexit is being handled and another opportunity for Jeremy Corbyn to prove his credentials or for the Liberal Democrats to continue their comeback. Although it will be an interesting test and indication for all political parties on how they are performing, how predictive are local elections for the next parliamentary elections?


Depending on how each party performs it is almost certain to change how much importance they give the results from local elections. If the Lib Dems continue to gain council seats at their current rate then they will unquestionably hail it as a major indication for the next general election, the opposite will likely be said by Labour if they, as predicted, lose seats on May 4th. However, no matter the outcome, if previous election cycles and local election results are investigated how accurate have they been at predicting what could happen the next time the country chooses their parliamentarians?


The Government Slump


It is now taken for granted that governments in mid-term local elections do not generally fair well. Opposition parties traditionally build up large numbers of council seats but find it much tougher to remove a government during a general election. This is backed up when taking in to account the numbers in the national share of votes in local and general elections. On average incumbent governments do 5-6 points better at the next general election following the local elections whilst the main opposition party does 2-3 points worse.


In the 2013 council elections Labour pulled  in around 29% vote share then ended up with just over 30% in the general election two years later, bucking the trend that vote share of opposition parties drop. This was overshadowed by a surge in the incumbent Conservative numbers who soared from 25% in the 2013 council vote to 36% in the general election helped by their coalition partners, the Lib Dems, collapsing from 14% in 2013 to 8% in 2015.


This traditional rule of thumb could be broken once again in this electoral cycle as the main opposition, if polling is to be believed, could see their vote share fall considerably in next months elections. The main benefactors of this could be the incumbent government and their former coalition partners but what this might mean for a general election could be difficult to predict, especially in a future that has Brexit negotiations and potential leadership changes to take in to account. 


Can Local Predict National?


By their very name, local elections are primarily focused on local issues and therefore may not be the best indicator of the national share. However elections can often be used by voters as an opportunity to show the positive or negative feelings towards the current government and direction of travel.  This is one explanation for the traditional mid-term slump that governments often face in local elections.


There is a general trend that a couple of years in to a government’s five year cycle that voters have become tired of certain faces and policies and use the local election vote, perceived as having less importance attached to them, to send a message to the government rather than simply vote on local issues or for local people, the national often takes precedent over the local.


This is why there is a long running pattern that although the main opposition party usually takes a large share of the vote from a government that slips from their most recent general election high, this balance is restored at general elections when a government enjoys a boost . In 1991 Neil Kinnock won the biggest vote share in council elections but lost to John Major in the general election only one year later. In 2003 Labour lost control of 29 local councils and yet in 2005 Tony Blair won another majority.


The other trend that council elections often show is if an opposition party performs incredibly well, seizing control of a number of councils and winning a large majority of seats, it has often indicated a change of government could be possible despite the incumbent boost. In 1995 and 2008 Tony Blair and David Cameron respectively won landslides victories in the council elections which were both followed two years later by a change in government, albeit only in a coalition for David Cameron in 2010.


Council elections are generally an indication but not always a guarantee of how a general election will finish. A government slump is usually expected but incumbent parties enjoy a bounce before a general election though a highly impressive display from an opposition party can signal a change in the near future. This means that whoever triumphs in next months elections they can rightly sing their own praises however it can only be a rough guide as to how a general election might go, especially in such uncertain times. 




Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Please reload

Want to respond? Submit an article.


We provide a space for reasoned arguments and constructive disagreements.

Help to improve the quality of political debate – support our work today.