UK Politics

Local Elections: Results might not be as disastrous for the Tories as doomsayers predict

A UK ballot box
Over 2600 council seats are up for election on Thursday

Ahead of Thursday's local and mayoral elections, Paul Krishnamurty runs through the state of play, makes his predictions and advises a trio of bets...

  • Street and Houchen polling well

  • Vast nationwide Tory losses forecast

  • Betting may be too anti-Tory


Ahead of Thursday's local elections - the last round of elections before the general election - YouGov have published an MRP and summarise the most significant councils. It reads like very bad news for Rishi Sunak.

The Tories are certainly going to lose hundreds of seats. A large proportion of these were last contested when Boris Johnson was at his peak, enjoying a 'vaccine bounce'. Labour's recovery under Starmer had barely begun.

The Conservatives' national poll rating has halved since and the headlines going into this Thursday's election have implied they will lose around half of the seats they are defending.

Sunak's hopes rest with Houchen and Street

There are a couple of good signals for the Tories. Ben Houchen's odds to be re-elected as Tees Valley Mayor have crashed to 1.251/4 after a poll showing him 7% up.

Also as predicted last week, Andy Street looks very competitive in the West Midlands Mayor race. The latest YouGov poll has him in front and the betting is almost tied. Street's odds have come down from 3.55/2 when advised to around 2.111/10 today.

I'm not laying back and think he'll win. Street's 22% approval rating is outstanding for any politician and I don't see Labour getting much past 40%. I am never confident of Labour maximising their inner-city vote, or hitting their polling prediction.

Labour to sweep other mayoral races

For the same reasons, I remain cold on Sadiq Khan Vote Share landing in the 45.00-49.99% band, in what looks a one-sided race for London Mayor. The last two polls had him on 46% - more than justifying odds of 1.041/25 to be re-elected.

Elsewhere, I expect Labour to win the York and North Yorkshire and East Midlands mayoralties. Both would douse any over-enthusiatic narrative from Street and Houchen winning. These regions are precisely the type where I expect the anti-Conservative swing to be strongest. Regions where they had previously peaked post-Brexit, during the previous stage of the re-alignment process.

This trend was evident in recent by-elections, in Leave-voting constituencies where there was a huge 2019 Tory majority, such as Tamworth, Wellingborough, Selby and Ainsty. It is where Labour would expect to be winning and extending their majority. If they underperform in such areas, it would be a warning sign for the general election.

Tory council losses look overestimated

The 2,600 council seats up for grabs don't all fit that description, though, representing a diverse set of areas with all sorts of local dynamics. The Tories are defending 985. So to lose that headline figure of 500 means losing more than half. How likely is that?

These calculations are extremely difficult but consider this. In the 2023 local elections, the Tories lost 1,063 out of 3,365 defences - just under a third. It was unanimously seen as catastrophic. In 2022, they lost 485 out of 1,898 - just over a quarter.

500 losses is a huge ask

Therefore to lose more than half would be a completely different scale of catastrophe. Granted, they are in a worse position than last year, trailing by about 5% more. Reform will take votes from them in the places they contest.

But that is only a small minority of seats and there are plenty of areas - notably among the metropolitan boroughs and unitary councils - where the Tories start from a very low position and can only realistically fall so far.

I did a rough, back of the hand, calculation and came out around 400 losses. That's over 40%, so way worse than the last two years. Yet still well short of 500. I think the betting is all wrong in this market.

Indeed, I suspect those odds are driven by two things. A misreading of a headline. The pre-eminent local elections analysts Rawlings and Thrasher predicted "up to" 500. Their worst case scenario is still below the 500. Yet that line was trading below 1.42/5 yesterday and still makes plenty of appeal to lay at around 1.68/13.

Secondly, I wonder if the betting markets are becoming too anti-Tory. Yes the Tories are at rock-bottom, facing an existential crisis. But there is a floor to their potential demise, particularly in council races in places where they have been forever dominant and opposition is scarce.

It is logical that the likes of Street and Houchen might defy the national doom. The Tories are in freefall because of events in Westminster and the nationwide conditions for which the Westminster government is widely held responsible.

These two are high-profile personalities, running in races that are to a large extent, personality contests. Will Birmingham voters blame the relatively popular Street, as opposed to the Labour council presiding over bankruptcy?

There's always a danger to get carried away with the prevailing narrative, which feeds into the betting. Hence, despite the general story being utterly grim for Sunak - perhaps bad enough to remove him from office - the best value betting options this week are on the Tories.

Lay the Conservatives to lose 500+ seats Betfair Exchange

Bet here

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