Who wins in an election? Is it the Party that gets the most votes? The Party that achieves power? Or is it the Party that performs the best relative to expectations?
It is a strange thought but hear me out. In 2017, Theresa May beat Jeremy Corbyn and retained her position as Prime Minister. But it certainly didn’t feel like it. The election is deemed a colossal failure for the Conservatives, while Corbynista’s still celebrate Jez’s narrow defeat like it was a game-changing victory for the ages. Why? Because it isn’t all about who wins.
Local elections are fast approaching in London. Indeed, this was the topic of discussion at our panel event on Thursday alongside London First and On London, hosted by Grosvenor. Everyone knows that Labour will do better than the Tories. Heads are not going to roll based on this. So, setting the expectation becomes half of the game, and the Conservatives are in a good place on that front, as our panellist, Conservative MP Stephen Hammond, made clear.
Ever since Party-gate, these elections were viewed as the reckoning for Boris Johnson. Commentators repeated over and over again around Christmas time, that while Johnson was not going to resign immediately, in May when he is humiliated at the ballot box, that is it; arrivederci, sayonara, see ya later. So, the bar is extremely low, and in that context, the Conservatives might just do ok.
Dave Hill, prominent London commentator and another of our esteemed panellists, agreed that Labour need to be wary of complacency in London. Wandsworth, which based on the trajectory of affluent urban areas at the moment, you would think might switch to Labour, is actually looking tight. Labour will have a strong chance of taking Barnet, but the Tories could take Harrow. If they do hang on in Wandsworth, win Harrow, and perhaps win another surprise one like Sutton, that is enough on its own for Boris to claim victory against expectations.
In terms of what people will be voting on, it is always a tricky thing to work out for local elections. The Tories may get a modest ‘war time’ bump, but surely, global geopolitical conflict is not the primary thing most people think about when deciding their local councillors. It will be a mixture of macro and micro. Party gate will matter a bit, Ukraine will matter a bit, and the overall brand of each of the parties will certainly matter, but so will more day to day issues. Labour MP Florence Eshalomi told our panel she expects transport, crime, housing, cost of living and the environment to be the main things being voted on, and it is hard to argue with that. Cost of living in particular, is a huge one, and the Conservatives will need to show they are taking it extremely seriously to avoid leaking votes.
A ridiculous amount has changed since Brits last went to the polls on mass. The General Election was barely two years ago, but we’ve had Brexit, a pandemic, war in Europe, a cost-of-living crisis, you name it. The number of different things that could be voted on is part of what makes the outcome unpredictable. So, if anyone tells you this thing is a foregone conclusion, just remember, the expectation management spin doctors are out in force at the moment. The reality, as ever, is much more complicated than the spin!