What can we learn from the council elections?

Photo by secretlondon123 Wikimedia Commons

The results of the Council Elections are now in, and it is a good time to ask: what have we learned?

Our take is that:

  • The results were worrying for the Conservatives; but
  • They were deeply worrying for democracy; so
  • We can be confident about the next election but not complacent.

The results were worrying for the Conservatives

The first and most obvious point is that the results were not good for the Conservatives: they lost over 1,000 seats and the number of Conservative-run councils declined from 82 to 33.

Summary of 2023 Council election results

Source: Sky News

For Sunak personally, some Conservatives thought the news was not disastrous“What I’m hearing on the doorstep is that people are giving Rishi Sunak a chance,” said Party Chairman, Greg Hands.

Others were less sanguine: former Conservative MEP David Campbell-Bannerman commented,

“It was MP self-preservation that got rid of Boris; they thought they’d be better off without him. And now it’s going to be MP self-preservation getting him back again … We’re well adrift. And I’m afraid that it has been because Boris has been brought down with all the turbulence that resulted from it and Rishi is in the frame for that.”

The Council Elections were Deeply Worrying for Democracy

Many former Conservative grandees have warned us about the current state of their party and, in particular about its (lack of) commitment to democracy.

Philip Hammond wrote: 

“the Conservative party has been taken over by unelected advisers, entryists and usurpers who are trying to turn it from a broad church into an extreme right-wing faction. Sadly, it is not the party I joined.”

Anna Soubry said:

“The right wing… are now running the Conservative Party from top to toe. They are the Conservative Party.”

Max Hastings, ex-editor of the staunchly right-wing Daily Telegraph recently summed-up the feelings of many:

“What’s heart-breaking, I think for all of us, is that our country does seem in the eyes of the world increasingly ridiculous. … they don’t hate us, they just look at us with complete disbelief: ‘what has this country done to itself over the last 15 years?’ … Nigel Farage has poisoned the Conservative Party … the [extreme] right is now running Britain and it’s a terrifying sight. … For the sake of the Conservative Party and for Britain, they’ve got to go.”

And Ken Clarke spoke of dictatorship: 

“We are dangerously close to the ‘elected dictatorship’ that Lord Hailsham, the former Lord Chancellor, warned us about half a century ago.”

The practical manifestations of this lurch to the undemocratic right are that these council elections were the first elections held without an independent Electoral Commission – the Elections Bill means that it now reports to ministers. We also had, for the first time, a requirement for voters to show photo-ID, despite the fact that there was virtually no voter fraud in previous elections.

As another traditional Conservative, David Davis, put it,

“It’s an illiberal solution in pursuit of a non-existent problem. If you’ve got an ID card, you’re putting a barrier in the way of people to exercise their own democratic rights, which is not necessary and shouldn’t be there.”

It was made more illiberal still by the way in which the rules were framed to make it harder for younger people vote than for older ones.

Voter ID requirements for young and old

Further, there were numerous examples of Conservative branches disguising their candidates as Green candidates; and even telling people in strongly Labour-voting areas that ID would not be needed.

The BBC estimated that around 2 million people of voting age did not have valid ID; of those only around 85,000 (about 4%) acquired the necessary identification in time to vote. There is no reliable information on how many people who wanted to vote, and would previously have been legally entitled to do so, were turned away – the Metro reported their numbers as countless.”

We can be Confident about the Next Election but not Complacent

At least one projection based on recent polls suggests that there is a negligible chance of the Conservatives being re-elected. Electoral Calculus, using recent polling data, suggest that the highest number of seats the Conservatives might hope for is 284, while the lowest number Labour could count on is 294 – an outright Labour win is, according to their analysis, 89% probable.

Given this, can we all (from the left to the centre-right, but not including extreme right) finally relax, knowing that the nightmare is coming to an end?

Unfortunately, current polls are not a good predictor of distant elections. If you look at the polls over the last 3 years (click on ‘3 YEARS’ in the red bar), you see that the Conservatives were ahead for much of that time and in April 2020, their lead was very similar to Labour’s lead today. The next election is due in January 2025 (though the Conservatives could choose to call it earlier if it suited them). Plenty of time for movement.

How can we get a sense of what might happen that is not driven by the current polls? We can look at history. One recent analysis concluded:

“The fundamental methodologies are all suggesting small but comfortable Labour leads … but nothing like the 400/500+ Labour seat count we’re seeing predicted today.”

The House of Commons Library has helpfully compiled a century’s worth of election results. What these suggest is that voters do not start with a completely open mind at each election: they consider whether they have seen enough evidence to make it worth the risk of changing their minds since last time.

Big swings are therefore unusual. And Labour needs a big swing: the Conservatives currently have 355 seats; Labour have 196. A Labour victory would need a swing of at least 80 seats. That has happened before – but less than 15% of the time.

If we combine the current poll-driven picture with the historical picture, what we see is something like this:

If you only look at history, you conclude that the Conservatives have about a 70% chance of winning again. If you only look at the polls, you conclude that they have virtually no chance at all. The truth lies somewhere in between: a Conservative victory looks unlikely, but certainly should not be discounted.

Michael Thrasher, elections analyst for Sky News, believes that Labour could be short of 28 seats for an overall majority; and in The SpectatorSir John Curtice, reported:

“Yet if the last year has damaged the Conservatives significantly, the local results also suggest that while Sir Keir Starmer has improved his party’s appeal, he has still not turned it into a magnetic draw. Despite the Conservatives’ difficulties and despite being four points higher than last May in the opinion polls, the party did little more in the local ballot boxes than maintain the share of the vote it was already enjoying last year. Indeed, it was running a percentage point or two below what Ed Miliband achieved in his best local election year, 2012.”         

Another Term Would Cause Enormous Damage

Would it really matter? Could things get much worse? Would an alternative government really be much different? The answer to all these questions is a resounding Yes. We are not looking at a traditional Conservative government: we are looking at a government of the extreme right, in which almost every member of the Cabinet is a Market Fundamentalist.

The world they wish to create is one which – from the perspective on a normal member of the population – makes the underperforming Britain of today look like Utopia: they aim to subvert what they call “mass democracy,” get rid of the post-war social contract, remove almost all human rights (except for property rights) and reduce taxes to the lowest level compatible with preservation of those property rights, which means vast cuts to benefits (of which pensions are the largest part) and public services.

They see the hardship these changes will produce as a necessary part of the process of building a new Britain. As Lord Rees-Mogg wrote:

“Mass democracy leads to control of government by its ‘employees’. But wait. You may be saying that in most jurisdictions there are many more voters than there are persons on the government payroll. How could it be possible for employees to dominate under such conditions?

The welfare state emerged to answer exactly this quandary. Since there were not otherwise enough employees to create a working majority, increasing numbers of voters were effectively put on the payroll to receive transfer payments of all kinds. In effect the recipients of transfer payments and subsidies became student employees of government who were able to dispense with the bother of reporting every day to work.

The collapse of coerced income redistribution is bound to upset those who expect to be on the receiving end of the trillions in transfer programs. Mostly these will be ‘the losers or left-behinds’, persons without the skills to compete in global markets.

When the hope of aid for those falling behind is based primarily upon appeals to private individuals and charitable bodies, it will be more important than it has been in the twentieth century that the recipients of charity appear to be morally deserving to those voluntarily dispensing the charity.”

When “mass democracy” has been revoked and the welfare state removed, he says, approvingly:

“The new Sovereign Individual will operate like the gods of myth in the same physical environment as the ordinary, subject citizen, but in a separate realm politically.”

We are already seeing the sharpest fall in living standards since records began, failing public services, an economy which is drifting further and further behind what used to be our peers and an erosion of human rights we always took for granted. If Max Hastings is right that the UK is already seen as ridiculous, we risk being seen as horrific.

Last year, we analysed what the UK could reasonably have expected from an alternative government and concluded:

“We should now be living in a relatively prosperous, well-governed country. We should be about 10% better off than we are today: wages should be higher and public services should not be on the brink of collapse. We should have the resilience to deal with the energy price rises as other countries have done. The gap between rich and poor should be smaller than it is today. And 144,000 more of us should still be alive. Each new generation should, on average, have better opportunities than the generation before. The government should be investing to provide healthcare and to tackle the climate emergency.

And that is just what the numbers tell us. We should also be living in a country where all are equal under the law, where adult citizens have an unfettered right to vote, where the right to peaceful protest is recognised, where politicians seek to unite the country rather than to stoke divisions, where our joint humanity is recognised, and our lives are valued whether or not we happen to be rich.

This is not an inflated vision of sunlit uplands and unicorns. This is what a competent government would have been able to deliver; it is what previous UK governments and governments in other countries have delivered.”

In short, a Conservative re-election would really matter, things could get a lot worse and an alternative government would be starkly different.

We have seen that the probability of the Conservatives being re-elected is not trivial – perhaps between 20% and 50% – and the impact is that the UK would cease to be a developed democracy with a civilised social contract and become the Western world’s first formerly-developed nation.

That is a very high risk.

Many of us are not used to thinking about such generic risks – perhaps we are most concerned about poverty, or saving the environment, or the explosion of mental health issues in the UK. Unfortunately, there is no chance of any of these problems being solved by a market fundamentalist government. Almost every problem that we care about will be exacerbated by the re-election of an extreme right-wing government.


There is a very good chance that the Conservatives will not be re-elected and that an alternative government will put the UK back onto a path of slow but steady progress. That is enormously positive news.

But the stakes are far too high for complacency.

To secure the future of the UKwe need change at the next General Election:

  • Moderates and progressives in all political parties (including the Conservatives) to realise how high the stakes have become and to co-operate to avoid another Conservative government – together, moderates and progressives have a very good chance of winning;
  • Voters to drop their traditional party allegiances and vote tactically – it is unlikely that the next government will be perfect, but it need not be destructive, and voters have the power to elect the least harmful option;
  • Non-voters to understand that – even if in the past they did not feel that their vote could make a difference, it can now (as the results in Shropshire North, Chesham and Amersham, Wakefield and Tiverton and Honiton all show, there is no longer such a thing as a safe seat).

Before that, we need to make sure that as many UK citizens as possible understand the threats to their – and their children’s – future. Please help us to share the message.

If you think you might like to help or just to keep informed, please do sign-up and join the 99% Organisation.

Editor’s comment: First past the post means that even high national poll ratings for Greens and LibDems will not necessarily translate into seats won. Tactical voting, Swap My Vote and initiatives like the South Devon Primary will all help voters avoid letting the Conservatives in by splitting the opposition vote.