In the latest local elections in May, Labour won 2,350 seats (up 77), the Conservatives 1,332 (down 33). There were other parties involved, but these are the main two.

The BBC has an article (2018-05-05) claiming that:

No clear party winner has emerged following Thursday's local elections in England.

Note that this article has been updated since all the results have been announced, as the article quotes this:

As the final election result was declared in the London borough of Tower Hamlets overnight, Labour sealed their best result in the capital since 1971.

I'm having a hard time understanding why the BBC thinks there is 'no clear ... winner'. Labour has almost twice as many seats as the Conservatives.

In the same article the BBC say:

But their [Labour's] failure to secure key targets such as Wandsworth saw Theresa May claiming "success" for the Tories.

But I don't see why Wandsworth is so vital. My question is, why is the BBC reporting that there is 'no clear winner'?

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    It's worth noting that Labour doesn't have twice as many seats as the Conservatives, it has slightly less than two thirds overall. In this particular round of elections they were defending 2300(ish) seats and ended up with 2300(ish).
    – Valorum
    Commented May 7, 2018 at 19:25
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    Lots of column inches will be written on this, and some of the answers here are not without validity. But I tend to see it much as you do - that Labour performed rather better than the Conservatives. These are not normal times, and the Brexit effect is producing some strange results. But one thing is clear - there is nothing in these figures which is going to persuade Theresa May it is worth holding another General Election.
    – WS2
    Commented May 8, 2018 at 12:48
  • Of course there is a clear winner. What the BBC meant was that there is not much change in who the clear winner is. Well if even the BBC doesn't get it right... who will. Commented May 9, 2018 at 8:03

3 Answers 3


Because when these results are projected into a nationwide swing, Labour and Conservatives come out suggesting that Labour has a small lead.

However there is normally a swing away from the party of Government in mid-term elections, and a swing back towards the government party for the general. Projecting these result forward to the next general election does not give either party a clear lead.

You quote the number of seats gained (77 for Labour, 33 for the Tories) These are very small gains, and should be compared against previous mid-term local elections in which the opposition party has had a huge lead over the government. I recall the 1995 local elections, in which the Conservative Party lost over 2000 seats to Labour and the Lib-Dems, and were nearly forced to third place. That was a local election that pointed to the Labour victory in 97.

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    Just to slightly extend your answer; the BBC is defining "winning" as gaining more seats than you had before, not having more seats than your opponent. No one has notably improved on their own past election result, therefore nobody has notably "won" anything, according to the BBC's definition of winning.
    – Flater
    Commented May 7, 2018 at 8:42
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    @Tim: A reasonable definition of "winning" (also similarly seen in statement like "Labour lost five seats"). But not a reasonable usage of "no clear winner", which is used in the context of encountering a (near) tie. "No clear winnings", however, would be more reasonable.
    – Flater
    Commented May 7, 2018 at 10:48
  • @Flater The problem with looking just at seat totals is that there were about twice as many Labour-held seats up for election. If Labour had finished with just 15% more seats than the Tories that would have been a dire night for Labour, and a Tory-win by any reasonable definition. Commented May 7, 2018 at 12:19
  • @JackAidley: Which is essentially what I said, albeit with a count example instead of a % example (whose distinction was not the focus of the message at any rate). It's not the current difference between the parties that is observed; but the difference in balance between the parties, then and now.
    – Flater
    Commented May 7, 2018 at 12:23
  • @Flater: I am unclear then how you intend this comment of yours to be read - But not a reasonable usage of "no clear winner", which is used in the context of encountering a (near) tie. "No clear winnings", however, would be more reasonable. - as I understood it as you saying that the definition of "no clear winner" was being used unreasonably? Commented May 7, 2018 at 12:27

Local government elections don't have any direct impact on each other and there is no consensus way to quantify the fact that an election in a small city, or a city with more seats on its council, may be less important than in a major city, or a seat with fewer seats on its council. Similarly, is the only thing that matters how many local governments are controlled by each party? Or, does the number of seats held by each party matter even if a change in the number of seats held doesn't lead to a change in control of the body? So, usually, the outcomes of local government elections are judged relative to the status quo, rather than in absolute terms.

If neither party changes its standing relative to the status quo, this is often judged to be a de facto draw. In the most recent election, as the original post notes, neither of the major parties changed their share of seats in local government offices by more than 0.3%, which rounds down to 0%, so it is fair to say that there was "no clear winner" judged relative to the status quo.

The metric the BBC seems to be using is the total vote share of each party, and by that metric, the major parties were neck and neck, again suggesting no clear winner:

Analysis suggested the two main parties were neck and neck overall in terms of national vote share - on 35% each. Last year Labour's vote share was estimated to be narrowly ahead of the Tories.

This metric makes sense if you are looking for an overall measure of the respective electoral politics strength of the political parties, rather than of the amount of political power that the election results translate into for each party.

It is important to note, however, that the "national vote share" statistic is a project that includes both the seats elected in the current election and areas that did not hold an election this time around. The Tories actually have about 50% more local government seats than Labour for all types of seats, but Labour had a two to one advantage in the kinds of seats up for election this time around (mostly in larger cities). Unsurprisingly, Labour does better in big cities while the Tories due better in more rural areas (although urban density is a relative thing; for example, the entire area of England and Wales including "rural' areas has a higher population density than the Atlanta, Georgia metropolitan area that excludes areas that are locally considered "rural").

  • I'm confused by your "local governments with smaller populations" comment. Most of the elections this time around were city elections, where Labour holds many more seats, and they did best in London. The Tories overall control more seats, but mostly in rural areas. This seems to point to the opposite of what you are saying? Commented May 7, 2018 at 9:21
  • @Tim But that doesn't hold either. The Tories have around 50% more local government seats than Labour across all kinds of seat (see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…) Commented May 7, 2018 at 12:13
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    @DavidRicherby that may be true, but does it invalidate the point being made? (That is, that because council sizes vary, comparing one party's numbers against the other doesn't reliably say very much about nationwide political sentiment.)
    – phoog
    Commented May 7, 2018 at 14:29
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    @ohwilleke your assumption is not quite right because the elections were not held everywhere in the country. Labour and the Tories had equal vote shares after the results were projected on to a national election, taking account of the many areas that didn't hold elections this year. In practice, Labour won more seats because more seats were available in Labour-supporting areas (most notably London).
    – Hedgehog
    Commented May 7, 2018 at 16:15
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    @ohwilleke Not that even real national vote share is a good measure of the winner in multiple voting areas with first past the post. Even in these election, Labour won Plymouth council by 11 seats to 8, while losing the popular vote by 44.0% to 44.7%.
    – origimbo
    Commented May 7, 2018 at 17:40

To address why Wandsworth is described as a key target, it's necessary to summarise the electoral system for UK national elections, as well as local elections in England and Wales. Both use a first past the post (i.e. the candidate(s) with a plurality of votes wins) in individual voting areas (parliamentary constituencies at national level, wards an local level). Since in many wards/constituencies one party or another receives a prohibitive percentage of the vote, only a few seats are usually actually in play, and since for local elections the councillors sit on individual councils, this means that there are also relatively few battleground councils.

In general Labour traditionally does better than average in urban areas, and the Conservatives better in rural England, and at this particular point of the local election cycle, most council seats up for re-election were urban. This is why Labour still holds a massive advantage in terms of seats won, despite picking up relatively few net gains this time round.

More subtly, for a number of reasons (including to a greater or lesser extent, Brexit) Labour has generally been gaining votes from the young and those in high social class jobs and areas which voted remain in 2016, while losing votes from older voters, those in lower social class occupations and those who voted leave. The voters from the first group are found across London, but particularly in some west London boroughs like Wandsworth and Kensington and Chelsea. Meanwhile, the second group is disproportionately found in northern and seaside towns.

All together, this made Labour on the attack in the first set of councils and on the defensive on the other. Again, since relatively few councils changed hands (and most of those that did went to the Liberal Democrats, who are still rebuilding from massive losses which occurred after they entered into coalition government with the Conservatives in 2010) neither main party did anything new this election, instead just picking up a bit better support in areas it was to be expected.

As such, the only real winner was the Liberal Democrats, who went from "pushed into the sea" to "doing well in some areas" and the only real loser was UKIP, who went from "the next big thing" to being of negligible influence.


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