Lewis Baston: Why Labour’s massive poll lead in London may deceive

Lewis Baston: Why Labour’s massive poll lead in London may deceive

The latest polling in London makes for exciting reading for Labour supporters: the big national swing from Conservative to Labour since November 2021 is being picked up. YouGov found Labour 32 points ahead of the Conservatives in national voting intention in London compared to 16 points ahead in the December 2019 general election. If these movements were to happen uniformly in every constituency it would mean seven Labour seat gains from the Conservatives including the removal of Boris Johnson in Uxbridge & South Ruislip.

Although the poll is the largest Labour lead YouGov have recorded in the capital since they started doing specific surveys in the capital in 2010, it suggests that the swing – of eight per cent – is still a little below the national average. This is consistent with other findings that Labour has made rapid progress in the former “red wall” seats while the Tories might have hit their bedrock in London and Labour’s repositioning towards the centre may result in some London voters – more than exist elsewhere – abstaining or switching to the Greens.

National voting patterns are all very well, but what about the big question – how does it affect the outlook for the borough elections in May?

For most of the last couple of years it has seemed possible that Labour will slip back overall. Last time round, in May 2018, was a mediocre year nationally for Labour but relatively good in London. Of the party’s 79 net seat gains in England, London accounted for 63 and the rest of England the remaining 16 – there is ground to be made up in the rest of the country.

Council by-elections in London since 2018 have tended to show Labour slipping, first to the Liberal Democrats and then the Conservatives. There has been a steady drum-beat of swings of four per cent or so from Labour to the Tories in London borough by-elections since December 2019. Local politics in some marginal boroughs – Croydon, Enfield and Harrow – have seen Labour administrations becoming unpopular.

Against this general trend, Labour could hold out hope of recovering ground in Barnet, where the Corbyn-led party fared poorly in 2018, and in Wandsworth, where Labour scored its solitary parliamentary gain of the 2019 election.

Before Labour get too giddy with the chances of a huge victory – Bexley would be on the edge if the party did win the 2022 borough elections by 32 points – there are a few points worth remembering. There are still three and a bit months to go, and while it seems improbable that the Tories will get back to the dominance they enjoyed before Johnson decided to try to get Owen Paterson off his parliamentary punishment the Tories can still bounce back a bit.

One concrete reason for thinking the borough elections might not be quite as bad for the Conservatives as the YouGov poll suggests is that the equivalent one in May 2021 had an 18-point Labour lead in general election voting intention, but the leads enjoyed by Labour London Assembly constituency members (10 per cent) and list members (seven per cent) were a lot smaller when the votes were counted. Also, Sadiq Khan’s winning margin was thinner than his 12-point poll lead.

Nor was this the first time that Labour had fallen short of its poll ratings. Perhaps an even more relevant example is the 2018 borough elections, when polls showed gaudy Labour leads ranging from 20 to 26 per cent but the result saw a (still chunky) 15-point advantage.

It may be that polling understates the Tories in London for some reason, possibly because pollsters find it harder to sample ethnic minority Conservatives compared to Labour supporters. It may also be that when polled, even with a prompt about local politics, they are still thinking about national matters but when they come to vote they are feeling grumpy about their borough council, which in most of London will be Labour-controlled. Some of them will support the Greens or Lib Dems, or even their local Tories.

The detail of YouGov’s latest work suggests that nearly half of the Lib Dem voters of 2019 intend to support Labour now. Again, this is based on broad national preferences. There will not be huge swings to Labour in boroughs such as Richmond and Kingston, because the context of the local campaign will remind people that the main contest in those areas is between the Lib Dems and Tories. The Labour lead across London is probably overstated by a couple of points by this factor. It might be different, however, in particular areas such as Finchley and south Westminster where the Lib Dems polled well in 2019 without much of a local base.

Even if we knock the Labour lead back by a – rule of thumb – ten points, that is still a substantial 23 per cent margin over the Conservatives – a pro-Labour swing of four per cent since 2018. Ward boundary changes complicate the analysis, but a swing of this size would be enough to turn Barnet and Wandsworth Labour while more ambitious targets like Hillingdon and Westminster would stay blue.

An outcome like that would be Labour’s best ever haul in terms of borough control, equalling 1971 if there is a mishap in one currently Labour-run borough and better if there isn’t. Although the Conservatives would have fewer councillors they would still control more boroughs than at their nadir of 1990-98. This is probably a more sensible base for assessing the 2022 borough elections than assuming that Labour is going to paint the whole town red.

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Categories: Analysis

1 Comment

  1. Paul Wheeler says:

    Really good analysis by Lewis.

    London local elections much harder nut to crack than Parliamentary seats for Labour. Smaller turnouts and more prone to Tory scare stories about level of council tax etc. Plus poor financial management in Croydon, the alternative protest vote of the Green and Lib Dems and an over-bearing introduction of Low Traffic Neighbourhoods in several Labour Boroughs point to a few ‘local upsets’ in May

    If they have their wits about them London Labour need to start managing expectations now. After all they have been predicting a Labour win in Wandsworth since 1990!

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