Tory, SNP hopes? Labour, Lib Dem fears? A Green shock? How to make sense of next week’s elections

I admit it: my past election predictions have not always been perfect. Here, though, is one that I make with confidence. Over the weekend of May 8-9, as we digest the results of next week’s elections, all the main political parties will tell us that they have done better than they expected.

They will, of course, be cherry-picking those results that suit their purpose. And the opportunities for cherry-picking will be greater than ever. May 6 will be Britain’s “Super Thursday”: the biggest ever set of contests outside a general election. For once, every elector in mainland Britain will have a vote. This is because we are having a double dose of elections: those delayed from last year because of the pandemic, and those due this year anyway. A party that cannot find any crumbs of comfort somewhere will be in truly bad shape.

Here is my attempt to vaccinate voters from the virus of the rival claims. The table below shows what each party must achieve in order to claim success. I set out a series of clear tests; no guff here about “winning the argument”. The more tests a party passes, the greater the success it can legitimately claim.

Two cautionary points should be made. The first is that this exercise is, inevitably, subjective. The number and range of elections are so great that other people might alight on a contest not included here, or offer different success criteria for those I have picked.

Secondly, I have not relied recent opinion polls to select my criteria. Polls can help parties play the expectations game, but this should be regarded as a side-show, not the main event.

For example, recent polls put the Conservatives around ten points ahead of Labour nationally. So far, the stories about sleaze and cronyism have not moved the dial. If the results of the coming elections indicate a Tory lead of five points in the national share of the vote, Labour is likely to say that its fightback has started against a government in trouble. However, as we enter the mid-term phase of this parliament, the main opposition party should be ahead, even without the whiff of scandal. Better-than-expected is not the same as success.

By the same token, a governing party that is five or more points ahead in the coming elections can claim success, even if this falls short of its poll rating. If the projected share is in the range of level-pegging to a four-point Conservative lead, then both main parties should beware claiming to have passed this test.

The comparison between local elections and opinion polls is especially tricky for the Liberal Democrats. They tend to do significantly better in local than national elections. Recent general election polls have put their share at around eight per cent. A local-election share of, say, 10-12 per cent might seem encouraging. It would in fact be one of their worst performances in the past 40 years. That is why I reckon that the Lib Dems need a projected national share of at least 16 per cent to claim success.

Overall, any party that passes all its tests will have good reasons to claim victory. Any that passes none of them should (but probably won’t) admit defeat.

As things stand, the Conservatives look more likely than Labour to have a successful election. The roll-out of the Covid vaccines has plainly boosted their support. Just now, their main doubt is whether the cronyism rows will provoke a late swing against them. Sometimes allegations of bad behaviour cut through. A year ago the stories about Dominic Cummings and his trip to Barnard Castle knocked back Johnson and the Tories. On the other hand, reports of Johnson’s private life have never dented his popularity. Will cronyism hurt him? We shall see.

Scotland’s election is arguably the most important contest, for the result matters in itself, not just as voting statistics to feed a wider narrative. Suppose the SNP wins a majority outright, as it did ten years ago but otherwise something that has never otherwise been achieved. The political pressure on Boris Johnson to allow IndyRef2 – another referendum on Scottish independence – will be immense. He probably won’t, at least in the short term. But refusal might polarise Scottish public opinion even more. That could spell danger.

Labour also has a Scottish dilemma. It is fighting the current election as a unionist party. But, given how badly Labour lost in the last general election, its best hope of running the UK after the next election will be as a minority government depending on the tacit support of SNP MPs at Westminster. That almost certainly means allowing IndyRef2. Transitioning from hated enemy of the SNP to wary partner will require the skills of a well-trained political bomb-disposal officer.

Apart from Scotland, Labour’s prospects depend most on the red wall contests – mayoral, council and, in the case of Hartlepool, parliamentary. Will these stay firmly Conservatives, or has Labour started to claw its way back? Labour will also be hoping for a big win in London; but if Sadiq Khan wins outright on the first count, while the party remains in the doldrums in the Midlands and North, the contrast will add to, rather than resolve, Labour’s dilemmas about its future direction.

There is one wild card in all this: the performance of the Greens. They have sometimes produced unexpected surges in the past. Today, their clear stance on two of the biggest issues of our time – Brexit and climate change – could boost their support. Could they surprise us again; and, if so, at whose expense?

This analysis was first published by Prospect