The 2018 local election damp squib – is the ‘Youthquake’ over?

Elections for over 150 local councils across England took place yesterday (May 3)

11 months on from the seismic 2017 General Election, the country was positively gripped once again by (an admittedly mild bout of) election fever yesterday (May 3) as voters across England went to the polls to determine the make-up of 150 local councils.

The major political parties certainly went all-in on the event in an effort to gauge public opinion, prompting some burning political questions: could Labour capitalise on a beleaguered Conservative party by making major gains in snatching council seats? Might the Liberal Democrats see some shoots of growth as voters who rejected the two major mainstream parties sought out an alternative? And could this election finally sound the death knell for UKIP?

The actual outcome of these elections have painted a somewhat mixed picture, though. Results are still coming in at the time of writing, but, while Labour have made some pretty decent gains, the Tories have actually managed to hold onto a number of Labour targets while also taking advantage of a collapse in the UKIP vote in places such as Barnet, Basildon and Peterborough. The Lib Dems have also gained a substantial amount of seats, while they also managed to wrestle back control of the prized Richmond council from the Tories.

Traditionally, turnout in the UK’s local elections is low, and, while a precise figure of how many people actually bothered to vote yesterday has yet to be established, it’s hardly expected to rise above the low turnout that greeted the equivalent elections last year.

NME managed to take our eyes off the truly fascinating coverage of the election results earlier today to speak to Paula Surridge, a Senior Lecturer in Sociology, Politics and International Studies at the University of Bristol, about the potential impact that this election might have on the greater political picture in the UK.

Jeremy Corbyn

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn pictured yesterday

Despite the fact that local councils have a substantial impact on daily life, voter turnout for local elections in the UK is regularly disappointing. Why isn’t there so much interest in the local elections from the electorate?

Well, for somebody like me it’s harder to be interested in this sort of election because they aren’t any where I live this year. So I think that because the whole country doesn’t vote at the same time [in local elections], it brings the interest level down as big parts of the country aren’t interested at all. Having said that, there’s always been this kind of lower-level participation in local elections: turnout in local elections is always lower than in general elections. I haven’t seen many turnout figures from yesterday, but figures below 40% are common, and figures below 30% do happen in some places – I think I saw it in Basildon in some of their wards [this year]. So there is that lower level of interest.

I guess some people feel like it has fewer consequences for them, and don’t necessarily feel that local councils make the big decisions that they’re really interested in. And you have to remember that lots of the population just aren’t that interested in politics! For all those of us who spend our lives obsessing over it, [there are also] loads of people who just really aren’t that bothered as long as everything is going reasonably well for them.

Local elections don’t have as much gravitas as general elections, but exercising your right to vote is still important. What happened to the youth vote – which had such a sizable impact during last year’s general election – yesterday?

I think that it’s perhaps down in part to being embedded in local communities. Many young people are starting out life in new areas; places that they haven’t necessarily had a long time to put roots down and become part of the community, and that might be part of it. You’re also seeing a general, lower-level of participation across the board, and because the youth vote is typically lower in general elections, it’s also lower in local elections.

I think also local politics in general does tend to be the preserve of people who’ve got the time to be involved. They form those local networks which younger people don’t tend to have as they’re not retired and they don’t have [the] time to put those roots down to become connected in communities.

The Tories looked like they were there for the taking at these elections, but in the end there wasn’t a sizable surge in votes for Labour. Can the same sort of support that we saw for Labour last year return?

Yeah, [the Tories] should’ve been there for the taking! It’s really difficult to extrapolate from these particular set of results – not least because of the turnout issues, where the turnout is driven by those that are really politically-interested in local elections – as different things can happen in a general election.

I think what’s interesting in these sets of results is looking at how the parties are consolidating support in areas that aren’t necessarily going to help them. Labour won places in 2017 that we weren’t expecting, Canterbury being iconic of that. As I’ve said elsewhere, there aren’t very many of those places left for them to win now. So actually, yes they do really, really well with the youth vote and in University areas, but they already have all the seats in the University towns. To progress, they’ve got to win seats elsewhere. And while the party will present last night’s results in London as strong – which, in a historical context, they are – they’re going backwards in places outside of London; places like Nuneaton [which they lost control of last night]. They’re the places that they need to win in order to have any realistic chance of forming a government at the next general election – whenever that might be!

What can Labour do to win back voters?

I’m no party strategist, but my other work suggests that there are left-wing voters there to be captured. However, they are not particularly young – they tend to be in the middle-aged range, and they’re not really on the liberal left. They’re much less liberal on some of those iconic liberal issues: they’re less pro-immigration, want to see tougher measures in terms of law and order and defence, and those kind of issues. I think Labour needs to think about some of those voters, because they’ve been losing those voters to the Conservatives for at least the last three electoral cycles. It’s not a new phenomena; it was masked a little bit by the rise of UKIP in 2015. But if you want to make inroads in place like Nuneaton and Mansfield, which was typical of it in 2017, you have to be able – this isn’t going to be a popular thing to say – to move a little bit closer to the centre in order to capture some of those voters who aren’t on that very liberal left wing of the party.

Theresa May

Theresa May

Curiously, have the results somehow strengthened the position of Theresa May and the Conservatives?

I think that that’s certainly how they’ll paint it. But there’s definite elements of concern for the Conservatives in the kinds of places that they’re losing to the Lib Dems. So, you know, it’s easy – especially after 2017 – to paint the competition as being between Labour and the Conservatives. But in terms of losing seats overnight, most of the lost Conservatives seats are going to the Lib Dems rather than to Labour. So I would say that there are definite seeds of concern there. And I’d say that one of the things that helped the Conservatives in 2015 and 2017 was the collapse of that Lib Dem vote, so if [Lib Dem support] were to start to bounce back a little bit then that would be a sign of trouble for the Tories in the seats in the south-west and the south coast – areas where the Lib Dems have historically been quite strong.

There were some very decent gains for the Lib Dems – could they be enjoying a comeback of sorts, given the current state of Labour and the Tories?

I guess that depends on when you start counting their [surge] in form from! I certainly think it’s a good set of results for the Lib Dems, but it’s still quite a long way for them to go in terms of getting back to the position they were in 2010, for example. Their vote seems to be restructuring as well, as in 2010 they were the first-choice party for the well-educated voter – and those voters have drifted towards Labour over time.

So the Lib Dems are starting to have to pick up a slightly different demographic – perhaps some of the Remain-leaning Conservatives in the south will see the Lib Dems as a place where they can be a bit more comfortable as opposed to where the Conservatives now.

Have last night’s results killed off UKIP for good?

In their current form, perhaps. The current party organisation is really, really struggling, but the space that they occupy is still there. So I still believe that there’s a space there for a party that looks a bit like UKIP but probably isn’t UKIP in its current form. They don’t seem to have the party organisation, the leadership and the finances they need to bounce back in any meaningful way. I don’t think their voters have gone away – I think there are still people occupying that space.

What do you envisage happening now in terms of the greater political picture, given last night’s results?

I suspect not much, to be honest! The Conservatives did a little bit better than expected, but they still need to deliver on Brexit to keep their voters happy. The divisions within the Labour party aren’t going to go anywhere, they will paint success in London as support for Jeremy Corbyn – but the more centrist parts of the party will see the issues elsewhere to be symptomatic of the arguments they make.

So I don’t think [the election results] disrupt the settings of the parties all that much. The only people that might feel a little bit more optimistic are the Lib Dems, who feel that they might actually be starting a bit of an upward curve.