As voters head to the polls, is the party over?

By Phil Briscoe

Local election polling day is here again and as electors cast their votes around the country, we can look back on a campaign dominated by one word. Not Ukraine, energy, prices, potholes, pavements, or even bins, but… parties.

Not content with the prolific use of the word at elections as we discuss party literature, party candidates, party campaigners and party election broadcasts, we have now been subject to endless discussion about actual parties, or at least alleged actual parties.

Whether or not Boris drank wine or Keir drank beer have become daily concerns of media commentators and the Westminster party bubble. But beyond party politics, this has not been the top issue on the doorsteps – many people are more concerned with how they will pay for their own glass of wine or pint of beer if prices keep rising, and for those who now vote against the Conservatives because of partygate, they probably never really liked the new Leader or ever really forgave the decision to hold the Brexit referendum.  The party issue is merely a cordial to add to their existing cocktail of issues with PM Johnson.

This has generally been quite a low-key election campaign and had it been an actual party, it would have been one of those rather tedious affairs where the serious chat was confined to the living room, the more animated discussion was dominating the kitchen and a few rebel smokers congregated on the roof terrace. With not much mingling in the hall, many guests will remain in the groupings they were in four years ago, apart from those who stayed at home this year.

When the results are counted later, we will see a mixed bag, but not the “once in a generation swing” as predicted by some newspapers. Yes, the Conservatives will lose some seats in the South of England, Labour will not recover as much ground as they had hoped in the North and both the Liberal Democrats and Greens will undoubtedly scoop up the disaffected voters in pockets of seats around the country. There will be much talk of the Red Wall and the Blue Wall but let’s just hope (for the sake of our surveyor readers) that they do not start talking about Party Walls – although this could form the basis of an interesting joust between Boris and Rishi in the months to come!

Despite the over-hyped Conservatives losses, the Labour Party are defending the most seats from the comparable 2018 elections, the results that night also proving fairly uneventful – Labour gained 79 councillors, the Lib Dems gained 76 and the Conservatives lost 35. The figures may be slightly higher tomorrow, but we are unlikely to see the Conservatives lose half their seats as some have predicted. For a recent example of large swings, we only need to look back three years to 2019, when the Conservatives lost over 1,300 councillors and the control of 44 local authorities – which is why the local elections will be far more interesting next year, in England at least. Previous Prime Ministers have seen losses on their final local election day of 842 for David Cameron, 291 for Gordon Brown, 665 for Tony Blair, 607 for John Major and 222 for Margaret Thatcher, excluding the shared polling day with the general elections for John Major and Gordon Brown when they both gained council seats as they were ejected from office. 

What the results will not do on their own is deliver a sea-change for any party leader – Boris will take a hit but not a fatal one and any backbench MP who lodges a letter of no confidence was already planning to do so; Keir will claim some wins but there will be private disappointment that they have not been able to achieve more after 12 years of opposition, tax rises, inflation and dare I mention it again, parties! The Lib Dems and Greens will hail their wins but there is a ceiling to what they can achieve this year.

In summary, the major parties have been managing expectations throughout this campaign, hoping for headlines but fearing the result will be largely the same. When the votes are in, there is likely to be a real shortage of post-election party parties this year and the hangover for campaign managers will be how to make 2023 more interesting and engaging – with all-out in elections in over 150 local authorities (and other elections in thirds), next year will be the big opportunity for shifts in power and campaigners can start planning their parties, as long as they stop talking about them! It will also likely be the last electoral contest before the next General Election.

The question now is whether we can stop the party chatter and focus on other issues – but with dates now pending for parliamentary by-elections in Wakefield, and Tiverton and Honiton, I fear the parties are not yet over!