Going local

Good morning and welcome to a bumper edition of the briefing. Polls are about to open across 32 London boroughs and 118 local authorities elsewhere in England for local and mayoral elections, and in West Tyrone on the Irish border for the first Westminster by-election of this parliament.

Polls close at 10pm and there is no exit poll, or even (unless someone’s been keeping it very quiet) any on the day poll. So we’ll have to wait until the real results come in. The PA has provided a list of estimated declaration times for whole local authorities, though there’ll be individual wards declaring before then, so it’s probably not that helpful.

I’ll get to the analysis of the locals in a moment, but there were a couple of polls released yesterday. In addition to our in-house polling on austerity, YouGov’s latest voting intention put the Conservatives four points head of Labour, very similar to the five-point gaps in its two previous polls. BMG also released some not particularly new but previously unpublished data, the most recent clip giving the Tories an indicated one-point lead.

Polling Matters covered these polls and a few other topics, including some of the supplementaries from the ComRes and ICM polls published earlier in the week.

The West Tyrone by-election is extremely unlikely to produce much excitement. The constituency, which is the second most Westerly in the UK, was a three-way marginal when it was created in 1997 and won by the UUP. But since 2001 it’s been held by Sinn Fein with larger and larger majorities, latterly 24 percentage points for Barry McElduff, before he resigned over a bizarre incident involving a loaf of bread.

It’s virtually inconceivable that his successor will come from any other party, but as David McCann notes on Slugger O’Toole, the by-election will be an important test, particularly for the SDLP and UUP, neither of which are represented in the current House of Commons.

Now, turning to the locals…

The first thing to say is that because so much has happened since most of these wards were last fought in 2014 – two general elections and the EU referendum – it’s difficult to boil everything down to a single number without being seriously misled.

But if you do want to keep it simple, the thing to watch is the projected national share (PNS) which John Curtice and Steve Fisher will produce tomorrow, or the very similar National Equivalent Vote (NEV) which Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher usually publish in the Sunday Times.

Basically, these are estimates of how the whole of Great Britain would have voted if every ward had been contested. They won’t tell you everything, but are the best single data points, and far more informative about the political weather than net seat changes or council control. For those interested, Curtice and Fisher have written about their methodology on Elections Etc.

Watch the gap between the two main parties. On these measures, a good night for the Conservatives and bad night for Labour would be the Tories winning the national vote. Every governing party to have won *any* round of midterm local elections has remained in office at the next general election. Oppositions usually win local elections.

Note that’s been the case even after general election landslides, and last year’s result was a Tory lead of 2.5 percentage points. So Labour scraping home with a tie or a narrow victory (under 5 points) on national vote share would be an “OK” night for both main parties.

And Labour winning it comfortably would be a good night for them and a bad night for the Tories.

2014 saw Labour win by 2 points on the PNS measure and 1 point on the NEV measure, while the general election result in 2017 was a 2.5 point Conservative lead. My base case for tonight, based on council by-elections and very limited polling would be a result somewhere between the two (and accordingly, fairly modest net seat changes).

For the Lib Dems it’s a well established pattern that they do better locally than nationally, so they need to be well into double figures (they took 13 per cent in 2014 and 18 per cent in 2017). As Steve Fisher points out, that might not stop them losing seats, given that the big two will almost certainly gain vote share compared with the last time these seats were fought.

On the basis that the projections are about right, expect to see Remain areas swinging to Labour and Leave areas swinging to the Tories relative to 2014. The shape (if not the size) of the swings shouldn’t look too different to the general election.

In London, Labour is very likely to get bigger swings in precisely the places it wants them (so getting a bigger swing in Wandsworth, where it needs a bigger swing, than in Hillingdon) though not necessarily big enough to take control of its target councils. The headlines over the weekend will probably be decided by a few hundred people in a handful of wards.

Put another way, if the London polls are slightly off one way, Labour could clean up in the capital, but if they’re slightly off the other way, they might not gain any councils there (though still plenty of seats).

Outside London, it’s not just the Brexity provinces voting – boundary changes mean that several major cities (including Birmingham and Manchester) are all up, but be wary of anyone quoting swings there. Wards with new boundaries (unless they’re properly adjusted) will give misleading swings.

Predictions and analyses from others come from Steve Fisher and Glen O’Hara. Labour supporters have been belatedly playing expectation management, but really the comparison shouldn’t be with expectations – which can be wrong for all sorts of reasons – but to some sort of benchmark. Tony Travers has had a look at this.

And if you missed the PSA briefing on Monday, a recording of most of it (John Curtice and Arianna Giovannini) is now available to view.

That’s all from me until tonight. Good luck to all readers who are standing or involved with today’s elections!

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