by Chris Curtis
Thursday, 6
May 2021
Explainer
07:00

Can Labour win the expectations game?

As always, success in today's elections will be measured against expectations
by Chris Curtis
Can Labour achieve a result that doesn’t look like a disaster?

The expectations game in the run up to local elections is bizarre at the best of times, but possibly never more so than this year. Under normal conditions the central question would be “is the opposition party doing well enough to point towards a victory at the next election?” 

Given the circumstances of these elections, however, nobody thinks Labour is even going to come close to clearing that bar. Firstly, the success of the vaccine rollout has pulled the Tories back into the lead in recent months. The political weather is still being driven by how successfully the government is getting jabs into arms, and 72% of voters think they are doing a good job at it.

Secondly, the individual circumstances in some of the key races would make it look like Labour are underperforming in the “Red Wall”, even if they were doing better at a national level.

The collapse of the Brexit Party in Hartlepool makes it a difficult seat to hold and the incumbency boost for Andy Street in the West Midlands and Ben Houchen in Tess Valley will likely be enough to see them re-elected as Metro Mayors. Many of the Red wall council seats that are up for grabs were last fought before the EU Referendum. So even if Labour bounce back from their 2019 vote share, there’s still plenty of room to perform worse than they did in May 2016.

So instead, the question going into this crop of elections is “can Labour achieve a result that doesn’t look like a disaster”?

Against this backdrop there are five results Labour might be able to pull off today that would at least give them something positive to point to. Achieving all of them is unlikely, but it isn’t out of the question that they could fall the right side of the line in one or two:

  1. Winning back the Tees Valley Mayoralty (latest polling has them 26 points behind)
  2. Winning the West Midlands Mayoralty (latest polling has them 17 points behind)
  3. Holding the Hartlepool constituency (latest polling has them 17 points behind)
  4. Winning a majority (31) of seats in Wales (average of the latest polling has them 26 seats)
  5. Pulling into second place in Scotland (latest polls have them 1% to 4% behind the Tories)

A good night for the Conservatives would be stopping them across all five.

When it comes to council seats, we would expect to see both main parties gaining seats on Thursday, given that a lot of seats were last fought in 2016 when the two main parties had a combined vote share of 61%. Now the parties combined vote share is closer to 80% we would expect them to gain seats from parties such as UKIP, Lib Dems, and Independent candidates.

Due to the pandemic we don’t really have a number of expected gains to manage expectations against. I would therefore expect the party that gains the most will be the one best able to claim victory.

Finally, I am particularly interested in the race for fifth place in the London Mayoral Election. Will Laurence Fox manage to win enough people over with his anti-lockdown platform or will one of the YouTubers or Independent space warriors running on an “anti-Fox” platform manage to pip him to the post? A surprise may be in store.

Chris Curtis is a senior research manager at Opinium.

Join the discussion


  • If you work with pollsters I would expect you to have a great interest and excitement with how polls predict the actual results.
    If you believe that opinion polls are a waste of time, it would be difficult to be interested at all.
    If you believe that opinion polls are there to give bored people something to talk about, then we need more people to train as pollsters.

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