Mid-term blues, reds and yellows

The headlines in the UK press following local elections made grim reading for the Coalition leaders. The Guardian lead with “Election drubbing piles pressure on Cameron” and The Times stated that “Labour thrive on bad day for Tories”. The I on Saturday condemned the entire political class with the headline “Britain’s vote of no confidence”.

It certainly wasn’t a good night for the Conservatives or Liberal Democrats – they lost 403 and 330 councillors respectively. Labour finished the night up 824 councillors and with a strong (albeit still minority) position on the London Assembly. Only the re-election of Boris Johnson as the Mayor of London spared the Conservatives further embarrassment.

Liberal Democrats are certainly hurting. With fewer than 3,000 Liberal Democrat councillors across the country, never in its 25-year history has the party been so weak at a local level. This year’s losses follow on from last year’s loss of 748 council seats.

Is this a clear rejection by the British electorate of the Coalition? Or is it simply a manifestation of mid-term blues – the inevitable local backlash and protest vote against the ruling party of whatever colour? And how do the Coalition’s reversals compare with recent history?

The Coalition has lost a cumulative total of 1,481 council seats in the first two local elections after the 2010 General Election. In 1980 and 1981, the Conservative government suffered a greater reversal losing a total of 1,677 council seats. Margaret Thatcher’s administration did, at least, enjoy a greater honeymoon period than the Coalition – in 1980 the Conservatives only lost 484 councillors.

Similarly, the Labour Party survived their first post-1997 electoral test unscathed – they emerged with the same number of councillors and gained control of an additional two councils. But Tony Blair’s honeymoon would not last – in 1998 the party lost 1,150 council seats followed by a further 574 seats the next year.

As the graph above shows, the Coalition’s current performance is roughly in line with what is to be expected of a mid-term administration in the UK. The Liberal Democrats have borne the brunt of voter anger and antipathy, whilst the Conservatives enjoyed a temporary honeymoon effect in 2011.

But the electorate has, so far, not subjected either ruling party to a drubbing on the scale doled out in 1995. This election was a milestone in the death throws of John Major’s administration and saw over 2,000 Conservative councillors lose their seats.