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Election Briefing – 31 Days To Go!

The latest polling by Opinium shows the Conservatives with a 16-point lead over Labour, a decrease of 1 from last weekend.

Last week’s Local Elections saw the Conservative Party gain 558 seats. Labour and the Liberal Democrats both suffered losses (Labour -320, LibDems -37), with Labour pushed into third place in Scotland behind both the SNP and the Conservatives. UKIP’s vote all but collapsed, losing 115 seats and only gaining 1.

The media over the weekend were full of attempts to draw insights from the Local Elections into how the General Election will turn out. Indeed, Sky News went so far as to offer a seat forecast based on equivalent vote shares, saying that in the General Election, the Tories would win a House of Commons majority of 48 seats on a vote share of 38% – some way off the landslide predictions we have been seeing.

People vote differently locally versus nationally. Drawing clear conclusions from the Local Elections is therefore difficult; however, a number of factors favour the Conservatives which we think means the actual General Election result is likely to be considerably up from the Sky prediction.

  • The Governing advantage – when choosing a Prime Minister, local issues are superseded by national concerns and, whether the parties admit it or not, this election is about Brexit, an area where the Tories continue to dominate. This is borne out by the last occurrences of Local Elections taking place closely ahead of a General Election, in 1983 and 1987. In both these years, the Conservative Government did much better nationally than locally. In 1983 Margaret Thatcher secured the largest share of the local vote and went on to win the most decisive election victory since Clement Attlee in 1945, with a far greater proportion of the national vote than the Local Elections indicated.
  • The collapse of UKIP – one of the key features of Friday’s results. Locally UKIP has been pushed to the edge of extinction as the Conservatives continue to assume UKIP’s position as the party of Brexit. Its collapse is one reason why the Tories have fared so well in traditional Labour heartlands – and this is likely to carry over to the General Election. As Opinium show below, transfers from UKIP to the Conservatives could itself cost Labour up to 32 seats. This also helps reinforce Conservative majorities – making it much more difficult for the Liberal Democrats to stage a return.
  • Transfers from Labour to the Conservatives – this most likely explains Tory Mayoral victories in the West Midlands and Tees Valley. Opinium polling shows that 10% of Labour voters in 2015 have pledged to vote Tory in 2017.
  • Turnout – difficult to forecast although turnout is usually much higher at General Elections. It is clear that the Labour vote in the Local Elections was considerably reduced. On the other hand, the Conservatives were far more likely to vote in the first place.

The Conservatives therefore continue to run a campaign focused on national leadership and Brexit, while the Labour Party tries to shift the debate onto more favourable territory. Social media analysis shows that the Labour leadership are getting some traction in creating conversations around issues thought to be more favourable to them; however, this is not reflected so far in actual changes in the polls. This is clearly dictating the way in which Labour are fighting the election. While moderates are bunkering down and arguing that a vote for them will deliver a strong local advocate to act as a check on the Tory Government, for Corbyn and his close team, this election is about their future hold on the Labour Party. Large rallies in Labour strongholds suggest Corbyn is at least in part trying to shore up support among party members sympathetic to him. With rumours swirling that he and his right hand man John McDonnell won’t quit in the event of a Labour defeat, maximising his existing support now is the best way that Corbyn can cling to power and push through the internal reforms that many suspect to be the true goal of his leadership.

This week marks a significant moment in the election campaign. A week before ‘manifesto week’ (Conservative are expected to launch theirs on the 15 May, Labour 16 May, LibDem 17 May), we should start to see some of the parties’ policy pledges being trailed much more in the media. With such a focus on the personalities and headline key messages of the main parties to date, it will be interesting to see whether the arrival of a policy debate does anything to impact the national narrative.