Two Ways to Forecast English Local Elections

On the 25th Mike Smithson of Political Betting went to London for the annual local elections briefing organised by the Political Studies Association. Profs Colin Rawlings and Michael Thrasher concentrated on their by-election prediction model. Smithson showed these two slides.

This is an increase on their forecasts in the Times earlier in the month, which gave Conservative +50, Labour -50, Lib Dem +100, UKIP -100. However, the seat change are is still well below my own, much more basic, forecasts. I have summarized how the seat changes stack up against both the 2013 and the previous 2009 round.

I should note that my seat changes make no allowance for boundary changes, or even changes in the councils. On this basis, there is no real difference between the forecasts for the Liberal Democrats or UKIP. The difference lies with the two main parties, where I predict nearly three times the gain for the Conservatives and four times the loses for Labour. In so doing I am basically saying that the seats will roughly revert back to the seat numbers of 2009. Figure 2 (from my post on the earlier Rawlings and Thrasher forecasts) shows this very volatility.

Note the 2013 figures included Ynys Môn council in Wales, along with 33 English Councils.

At the moment we are living in turbulent times in terms of shift in opinion. I think it is not unreasonable to expect similar swings in seat numbers to those that occurred in these two previous elections, especially

Using local by-elections as a means of predicting local elections seems intuitively appealing. Every Friday is published the data on the previous days by-elections at both Politicalbetting and ConservativeHome blogs. The availability of this data is in no small part due to work done over many years by Rawlings and Thrasher. Yet these results are for the whole of England, whilst these elections are for only a seventh of the total. So local issues may be different, especially when these elections are in predominantly Conservative areas. The divergence is shown in the unchanged modeled National Equivalent Vote share from 2013 to 2017 for the Labour Party. It seems to me unlikely that this 29% share, (compared to actual 2013 English vote share of 21.1%) should be unchanged when the UK General Election opinion polls have dropped around 12% from around 38% to 26%. The current relative position of the Conservatives to Labour is about the same as in 2009, with maybe the Conservatives in a slightly stronger position currently. For this reason, I think the benchmark for forecasts should be 2009 in England.

However, if Rawlings and Thrasher, by their modelling can produce something nearer to the actual results this coming Thursday then they will have greatly added to election forecasting by managing to go beyond the rough ratios of swings in proportion to movements in national opinion polls.  The key will be in the Labour party losses, where the R&T forecasts appear most divergent. That is, without evidence of a large move in the opinion polls (and I am writing this before the opinion polls for the Sunday papers are published), if Labour seat losses are less than 200, then the explanation for this divergence will be at least in part be from predictions based on by-election results. The model will have been a predictive success. Even if Labour loses 300 seats, the fact of developing a rigorous model that is falsified by the data, could develop our understanding of council by-elections as a predictor relation to the full results. This previously unavailable information could still be useful. In less than a week we shall know.

Kevin Marshall

 

Implications of the Forecast Local Council Elections Results in England, Wales and Scotland for GE 2017

Summary

I bring together Local Election forecasts for England, Wales and Scotland made over the past few weeks, before the General Election announcement a week ago. In the three countries I forecast that the Labour Party would lose 700 seats, and the Conservatives to gain over 500 seats. The most dramatic changes I forecast are in Scotland, where the Conservatives should end up with more seats than Labour, firmly cementing their place as the second party of Scotland. The SNP I forecast to have a net gain of 100 seats, despite likely losing seats to the Conservatives.
The impact of the snap General Election is likely to reinforce the dramatic exchange of seats that I forecast, with the additional impacts of (a) confirming the collapse in UKIP support; (b) highlighting the re-emergence of the Liberal Democrats as the major alternative to the Conservatives in much of England; and (c) providing a signal that the peak SNP dominance in Scotland has passed.

 

In the last few weeks I have made some results forecasts for the forthcoming local elections in England (here and here), Wales and Scotland occurring on May 4th. I was forecasting some big changes in numbers of seats. Since then a snap General Election has been called for June 8th. This may affect the forecasts, although given I have used mostly GE opinion polls, maybe not quite so much as local election forecasts based more upon recent local election by-election results. Rather than try to reforecast based upon widely fluctuating opinion polls (such as in last Sunday’s papers ), I will try to evaluate the impact of my forecasts being correct in the context of the narrative for the parties for the last few weeks of the General Election campaign.

In England, only a small proportion of councils are up for re-election. The 35 councils are a mixture of shire counties and unitary authorities. They are predominantly in areas with Conservative members of parliament, although there is also the Labour stronghold of Durham, along with Lancashire and Derbyshire where Labour managed to regain council majorities in 2013. In terms of councils involved, this is a very low number. There were 124 English councils with elections in 2016 and 279 in 2015. Entirely absent are any council elections in the major English cities.

In Wales and Scotland all council seats are up for re-election. Although with similar numbers of council seats in the two countries as the English councils, these are far more significant politically.

Figure 1 summarizes my forecasts of seat changes for each country both against the last elections in 2012 and 2013 and the previous round of elections in 2007 and 2008.

I believe that a major influence on the UK local election results is the state of national opinion. This is in general direction of opinion and not the percentage share of the vote. For instance, in 2007 and 2008 the Labour Government was trailing the Conservatives by quite a long way in the opinion polls – possibly as much as 15 points. By 2012 and 2013 the situation was reversed, with Labour in opposition being around 8 points ahead of the Conservatives. Proportionately, Liberal Democrats as the junior partner in a coalition government, suffered greater reversals than the Conservatives.  This is strongly seen in the English council results, with the exception of the UKIP factor. The 2013 council elections demonstrated a game-changing http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-22382098 rise of UKIP outside of elections to the European Parliament.  In Wales, the National Opinion influence is less marked, but it is still there. Scotland is the least influenced by National Opinion trends, as there are strong factors unique Scottish factors, such as the replacement of the Labour Party with the SNP as the major left of centre party.

Before looking at the likely consequences for the General Election, I have shown the approximate forecast council seat numbers in figure 2.

Political Implications of the English Council Results

With hindsight my UKIP seat estimate is probably too high. But even if they retain 40 to 50 seats it will still be a major reversal on 2012. It will be very hard to convince voters in England – especially in the pro-Leave areas of the country – that they are a credible alternative political party, whether on Brexit or populist issues such as immigration.

The Liberal Democrats fell into third place behind Labour in 2013. I will be very surprised if that they do not regain second place. Expect to see a lot made of being in most of Britain the only credible alternative to Conservative pro-Brexit juggernaut.

The Labour Party will excuse the results as being in Tory areas, claiming that there is a different picture in the rest of England, particularly in London. They will try change the conversation to winning the mayoral elections in Manchester and Merseyside.

 

Political Implications of the Welsh Council Results

Plaid Cymru might only make small gains, and it will be in a limited number of areas. They will use this to persuade voters of being an anti-Brexit and pro-Welsh voice. By softening the Welsh language aspects, they might seek to extend their reach beyond the West Coast.

The Liberal Democrats will look at actual council successes to drive home their Pro-Remain message, particularly in the capital, where they will be looking to regain Cardiff Central.

For the Conservatives, coming in third place behind Plaid Cymru, despite large gains, may give confidence to other parties. If they come second (and/or regain control of the two councils lost in 2012) then this will be a landmark achievement. A YouGov opinion poll for Cardiff University and ITV on 24/04/17 of voting intentions for the Welsh local elections gave Labour 28%, Conservatives 26% and Plaid Cymru 19%, against my assumptions of 29%, 16% and 17%. The main inaccuracy of the poll I believe is that it calculates Independents plus minor parties at 12%, half the level of 2012. I assume a 1% gain. Given such varied support across the councils, along with first asking General Election opinions, it is easy to understand how this discrepancy might arise. However, it will be the actual results that will decide who has the greater accuracy.

 

Political Implications of the Scottish Council Results

It is in Scotland that the results will reverberate most strongly if my forecasts are correct. There are a couple of points to remember about the peculiar Scottish context.

First is that Scotland is embarking on the third set of council elections using the single transferable vote system (STV), with council areas divided into supersized wards of three or four seats. It means that if a party selects too many candidates in a ward, they may end up with less Councillors elected as candidates of the same party compete against each other for votes. They parties therefore try optimization of candidates based on forecasts. As I found, the Labour Party, instead of optimization based on a dramatic forecast fall in their vote, chose to largely match candidates with existing Councillors. They are therefore likely to lose proportionately more seats as a consequence of this quite rational decision.

Second, is the growth in the SNP means that the change in the vote from council election to council election does not strongly reflect the swings in the UK-wide opinion polls over the same period. For instance, although the Labour share of the vote in 2012 was higher than in 2007, the rise was much smaller than the SNP rise in vote share. However, I still forecast SNP vote share to increase, resulting in a net gain in Councillors. But these net gains will include very large gains in Labour councils, such as Glasgow, alongside loses elsewhere, especially to the Conservatives. There will be a strong message for those who oppose independence that the SNP juggernaut might have peaked and could signal the turning of the tide on the Independence issue.

Lib Dems may not have a significant showing, as in many areas where they are strong in the Westminster elections, are where there is a strong representation of Independents. Indeed, the councils of Orkney and Shetland, where the Lib Dems have their only Scottish MP, are all Independents. Whether they will win over some votes as the party of double-Remainers, remains to be seen. An extensive Scottish Yougov poll  published in January, but based on sampling in late 2016, showed that the double-Remainers were 28% of voters. That includes 21% who voted in one or none of the two referendums.

From my forecast the Conservatives will easily replace Labour as the second political party represented on Scotland’s councils. Due to Labour having too many candidates, they could pick up seats in unexpected areas. Conversely, if the Conservative surge continues, then Ruth Davidson may end up apologizing for having too few candidates, as vote share in some wards might easily elect the available candidates.

 

Implications for the UK General Election

A loss of 700 seats across three countries would be a huge message that the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership was heading for an even worse result than in 1983. The benchmark in England and Wales would be the woeful results of 2007 and 2008, which were 530 seats lower than the last set of elections, compared to my forecast of 455 seats lost.

The Conservatives will want to downplay strong gains in England and Wales in case complacency reduces turnout on June 8th. But they will want to emphasize their confirmed position as the opposition in Scotland.

The Liberal Democrats will announce that they are back, and concentrate on gains made in particular areas where they are clearly the main opposition to the Conservatives Hard Brexit. They will emphasize any gains they might make in the council areas where they had Westminster MPs until 2015.

UKIP may lose more than the rounded 100 seats I forecast. It will show that, unlike in 2015, they are no longer the protest vote of the disaffected. Given that their main cause has been achieved, and supporting the Conservatives is the surest way to ensure Brexit is enacted in full, this may signal the end of the UKIP as a national force on June 8th.

The biggest losers could end up being the SNP, despite their likely winning control of a number of councils and destroying the Scottish Labour Party. Their demonisation of the Conservative and Unionist Party as the subjugators of the Scots will not hold as much sway when the spread of their Councillors is much broader than in living memory and the Conservative voter is more likely to be your own neighbour.

Kevin Marshall