Local elections analysis shows scope for progressive alliances

Lena Swedlow, Campaigns and Projects Officer at progressive alliance group Compass, looks at local election data, emphasising the benefits non-competition could deliver.

Polling station in Skipton
Lena Swedlow

Just under a month ago, the local elections saw an unprecedented number of contests with only one candidate from Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Green party standing. Whether by local design or by accident, progressive parties not competing had a stunning impact. 

Compass has been raising the alarm about the impact of splitting the vote at the last general election. We know that in more than 60 seats there was a progressive vote majority that was split between parties, gifting the Conservatives the seat. But at the recent local elections, we saw not only the cost of competition but also the clear benefit of non-competition.

This research shows that standing a single progressive candidate boosts the vote share significantly. In seats in which the Greens were the single progressive challenger to the Conservatives, their vote share rose by more than 20 per cent. For Labour, being the only non-Conservative candidate is estimated to have increased vote share by 6.1 per cent, while for the Liberal Democrats the gain is 14.1 per cent. 

Meanwhile, the estimated effect on the Conservative vote share is an increase of 2.9 per cent. This implies that a significant majority of voters for progressive parties will transfer to other progressive parties if their preferred party does not stand a candidate. Given that many wards are won by narrow margins, the effect of sole progressive candidates is likely to have affected the results of hundreds of elections this year.

This research has identified 36 progressive candidates who won their seats because other progressives didn’t stand, five of which were Greens. And the potential for further impact is clear: research shows that if more progressives had taken this approach, 118 more seats would have been won by progressive parties. This could have delivered a further 10 Green councillors.

Compass data

(For more information on the analysis and the methodology please see Owen Winter’s blog and GitHub).

To understand why we’re discussing these kinds of manoeuvres, it’s worth taking stock of the context. It could be argued that every election is a fork in the road, but the threats we are currently facing to our climate and our democracy are existential. 

Across the board, things have got substantially worse for people and the planet under the Conservative governments of the last 12 years. At a time when we need democratic solutions to issues like the climate emergency, social care or inequality, the Conservatives have been hollowing out our democracy. The ills of First Past the Post are many and well known – it’s hard to deny something’s wrong when more than 70 per cent of votes cast at the last election received no political representation. Yet it’s this crooked voting system that props up a government while it passes an anti-democratic Elections Bill, repeals the Fixed-Parliaments Act, and is now considering a more lenient approach to rule-breakers, which is just what this country is crying out for. 

That’s all bad enough, but let’s not make their mistake of ignoring the challenges we’re facing. People are going hungry in the UK, one of the richest countries in the world. The rich are getting richer every year, yet living standards are set to fall lower than since ONS records began in 1956. If we care about both this generation’s health, prosperity, and security and that of the next, we cannot hand the Conservatives a fifth election win. 

So what stands in between progressives and removing the Conservatives? It would take just a uniform swing of just 3.18 per cent away from the Conservatives to remove their majority. It is highly unlikely that Labour will secure a majority at the next election. A uniform swing to Labour of 10.52 per cent would be needed to secure a majority – larger than the landslides of 1997 and 1945 – but assuming there won’t be a comeback in Scotland sees that number creep to almost 14 per cent. 

As we’ve seen again and again, when progressives work together they can win. But when they compete with one another, they lose. Despite the party machines’ insistence on standing in seats where this only benefits the rise of the right, local activists are already cooperating under the radar. They come from every party and none, so there’s a place for everyone in our movement. They are building the trusted relationships that will help us not only win an election but form a progressive government that puts people and planet first. 

Compass is working to facilitate this cooperation to allow local activists, members and voters to have a meaningful say at the ballot box. We are producing the research, building the community and making the argument at the national level to allow local members and voters the chance to determine our future. For more information, visit Compass’ website.