UK local polls: Labour and Tories bleed support from their respective bases

Labour's support is down by eight points since last year because of its support for Israel's war on Gaza, and Conservative voters are increasingly switching to the right-wing Reform party

Britain's main opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer (R) and Britain's main opposition Labour Party Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rachel Reeves, canvas for votes in Swindon, west of London, on March 30, 2023.
ISABEL INFANTES / AFP
Britain's main opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer (R) and Britain's main opposition Labour Party Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rachel Reeves, canvas for votes in Swindon, west of London, on March 30, 2023.

UK local polls: Labour and Tories bleed support from their respective bases

The disastrous showing by the UK’s ruling Conservative Party in recent local elections raises serious doubts about Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s chances of remaining in office when the country holds its general election later this year.

In the latest English local elections, Conservative representation collapsed to its lowest level since 1998 when Labour’s Tony Blair swept to power in the late 1990s. At the same time, the Tories also lost the Blackpool South by-election with a huge 26-point swing to Labour.

Polls suggest that more people who voted Conservative in 2019 have now switched to the right-wing populist party Reform than to Labour. Certainly, Conservative support fell more heavily in areas contested by Reform, the new insurgent pro-Brexit party formed in protest at the Conservatives' indifferent record on implementing Brexit.

But while the opposition Labour Party, which many pollsters predict will win a landslide victory in the next UK general election, made significant gains in key target areas, such as the Midlands town of Nuneaton, the party has fallen short of its previous performance in some areas.

This was mainly because independent candidates, many campaigning on the war in Gaza, pulled off shock victories in traditional Labour heartlands such as Oldham.

This meant that, on average, the party’s support is down by eight points since last year in wards where more than 10% of people identify as Muslim. Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper said Labour would work to “earn votes back in future” after conceding that Labour had lost council seats for this reason.

She told BBC News: “We do strongly recognise there are areas where we have had independent candidates who have been particularly strongly campaigning on Gaza and where there is a really strong feeling about this issue because tens of thousands of people have been killed.”

Read more: Galloway's election win exposes UK divisions over Gaza

The Liberal Democrats, a minority opposition party, had only a modest success. There is little sign of the Liberal Democrats being able to persuade Labour supporters to make a tactical switch to them to help defeat a local Conservative incumbent. Securing such tactical support is vital to Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey’s general election strategy.

The Greens, by contrast, did have some cause for celebration. Not only did they gain seats, but their vote was up from last year. However, the overarching message from the local ballot boxes was that while the Conservatives are in deep electoral trouble, and voters seem united in their desire to remove them, the British electorate remains divided over who to install instead.

Poll expert and Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University Sir John Curtice asks: “How realistic is it to use the share of the vote won by the parties in local elections to anticipate what might happen in an immediate general election?

“Although the ups and downs in party performance in local elections often run in parallel with the rises and falls in party support in the polls, some people (around one in five) vote differently in local elections than in a general election. As a result, the divergence between the level of support parties win in a local election and how well they would perform in a general election has become more marked.”

Leading pollsters have warned that Rishi Sunak's recent claim that the UK might be heading for a hung Parliament, where a collection of opposition parties unite to form a government, is unlikely to be true. The Prime Minister claimed the race for No10 is "closer" than many polls suggest. He pointed to analysis suggesting that Labour may not secure an overall majority.

Giving his assessment of the local election result, Sunak declared: "The independent analysis shows that whilst, of course, this was a disappointing weekend for us, that the result of the next general election isn't a foregone conclusion, and indeed actually is closer than, or the situation is closer than many people are saying or indeed some of the opinion polls are predicting."

But for many, this seems more like Sunak clutching at straws to save his electoral skin than a realistic assessment of the current state of play in British politics.

Ben Page, chief executive of polling company Ipsos, said Mr Sunak's projection was "for the birds".

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