The Public Gallery: Will our local election be decided nationally?

By - Thursday 3rd April, 2014

As the Croydon Conservatives take flak for not releasing a manifesto yet, Tom Black explores how much the outcome of May’s local elections will depend on what both parties do in Croydon

The theory

For a long time now, I’ve been commenting cryptically that ‘the next local election may be decided nationally’. This is based on the idea that a large proportion of voters use local council elections as a poll on the state of the parties nationally while only a small minority votes on local issues – from council services to competing visions for the area.

Some in the parties play up to this – when it suits them. Veteran activists will recognise stories of canvassers going door-to-door explaining how someone’s vote ‘sends a message to Gordon Brown/Mrs Thatcher/Ted Heath’. I remember encountering the first example myself.

This isn’t the same story nationwide. Some city, county and borough councils are fiercely contested by political forces entirely absent from Westminster, or at least seem to operate independently of their national parties’ fortunes. But Croydon is a borough with a serious case of Labour/Conservative dominance. It therefore stands to reason that our council may be one where opinions of Ed Miliband and David Cameron matter more than who presents the best vision for Croydon.

The test

This is not – obviously – how local elections should be decided. But issues of tribalism – and party toxicity – are complex and won’t be resolved any time soon. Gavin Barwell told me a few weeks back that he regularly meets people who tell him he’s a good MP but they won’t vote for him because they’re Labour supporters. Similarly, one might well be impressed with one’s local councillors but unable to bring oneself to vote Conservative – or Labour, as the case may be.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. This week, I’ve decided to put this theory to the test by inspecting national polls and placing them alongside Croydon’s local election results from the month each poll was taken, from the last local election in 2010 back to 1994 when Labour took control of Croydon Council for the first time ever.

Why nothing further back? Croydon has seen a deal of demographic change since 2002, along with numerous boundary changes. The Croydon that goes to the polls next month is different from the Croydon of 2002, and very different from that of 1996 or 1968. As much as I’d love to crunch some serious numbers and go ‘full datablog’ for you all, I also suspect such a project is unsuitable for a weekly political roundup column. I’m not looking at specific swings in voting percentages in Croydon – just whether overall control of the council matched the national mood. I’ve gone with the closest poll to the date of each local election (thanks to the excellent UK Polling Report for the data).

The pattern

1994 State of the polls: 29% 44% 24%
Result in Croydon:
Labour takes control of the council

Here is a straightforward piece of the narrative that ran from Black Wednesday to “Were you still up for Portillo?”. Labour was riding high and in Croydon that helped put Labour’s Mary Walker in charge. The result matched the national polls.

1998 State of the polls: 25% 54% 
Result in Croydon:
Labour maintains control of the council

Blair was still on electoral honeymoon and the Labour Party could do no wrong. Voters saw William Hague as a joke and this did not help the Tories back to power in Croydon. The result matched the national polls.

2002 State of the polls: 32% 44% 18%
Result in Croydon:
Labour maintains control of the council

Labour’s post-9/11 bounce had begun to calm down, but Croydon Labour must have been encouraged by the same percentage nationally as they’d had this time in 1994. This optimism was vindicated. The result matched the national polls.

2006 State of the polls: 38% 30% 20%
Result in Croydon:
 Conservatives take control of the council

What a difference four years makes. Iraq had dragged Labour through the mud, the 2005 general election had significantly reduced its majority (and vote share), and David Cameron was the first Tory leader since Thatcher who actually looked Prime Ministerial. In Croydon, Andrew Pelling won (by a whisker) the seat of Croydon Central for the Conservatives in 2005, and a year later they rode the wave back into power in Katharine Street. The result matched the national polls.

2010 State of the polls: 36% 29% 27%
Result in Croydon:
 Conservatives maintain control of the council

It’s important to remember this one took place on the same day as the general election. People in Croydon declined to ‘agree with Nick’ (remember that?), but that was no surprise. What’s interesting, though, is that while Labour was routed nationally, in Croydon they actually gained ground on the Conservatives, reducing the Tory majority in the town hall to 3. Then again, the Conservatives failed to seal the deal nationally on the same day – Cameron didn’t win a majority and the coalition was born. The result matched the national polls relatively closely.

Based on the above, it’s difficult not to conclude – somewhat awkwardly for Croydon’s political activists – that Croydon is a bellwether borough and seems to swing reliably with the country. I quite like that – we are a microcosm of Britain.

So, what’s going to happen this year?

Regular readers will know I don’t like to make predictions at the best of times, and when the polls are this close it’s not as though my theory can be extrapolated to make a 100% credible call. There are a few other factors, too – ‘punish an incumbent government’ is a greater enticement to the ballot box than ‘offer a vote of confidence in the current lot’.

But for fun (if nothing else): we are currently exactly seven weeks from polling day. On this date in 2010, polls gave the Tories a narrow 4-point lead over Labour nationally. See above for what happened with the council. Today, the polls (averaged out) are as follows: 34% 37% 10% 12% (yep, they’ve begun to do UKIP now). Recent trends suggest the Labour lead is slipping, but that it’s thanks to a reduction in the Labour percentage, not a marked increase in the Conservative one.

As I said, I don’t like to make predictions. But if you’ll take a hunch from a guy who’s just spent an hour fiddling with colours in WordPress, my shout is for Labour to take control of Croydon Council in May. Narrowly, mind.

Tom Black

Tom Black

Tom is the Citizen's General Manager, and spent his whole life in Croydon until moving to Balham in 2017. He also writes plays that are occasionally performed and books that are occasionally enjoyed. He's been a Labour Party member since 2007, and in his spare time runs an online publishing house for alternate history books, Sea Lion Press. He is fluent in Danish, but speaks no useful languages. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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  • Anne Giles

    I sincerely hope they don’t win! :-)

  • Peter Staveley

    It will be interesting to see if the effect of holding the European Elections on the same day will give us (UKIP) any seats. Outside of London in 2009 and 2004 it boosted UKIP’s results by several percent and gave UKIP some council seats. Of course for 2004 UKIP gained 2 London Assembly Members.

    If we win a reasonable number of seats in Croydon then it could go to no overall control, but possibly with Labour still as the largest group.

  • David White

    Interestingly the Tories have never won the Council with as little as 34% support, and Labour have never won it with as little as 37%, so the result will be interesting whatever happens. It could be that the winning party will take control with the support of just 1 in 8 of the electorate (assuming a turnout of say 34%) – hardly good for democracy.

    Although I would like to see a Labour Council, in many ways it would be healthy if the Conservative/Labour duopoly was broken up, by the election of some councillors from the smaller parties. I don’t see that happening however as UKIP, LibDems and Greens have their support fairly evenly spread across the borough, rather than concentrated in certain areas which could give them a breakthrough.