The challenge of expectation management

In 2007, David Cameron alluded to the Tories’ hope of winning overall control of Bury Council in the run up to the local elections. Across the country, the Conservatives went on to win over 900 council seats, whilst Labour lost over 500. Nevertheless, Labour talking heads consistently emphasised that their opponents had, “failed to meet expectations” because they didn’t win Bury – and the media analysis downplayed the Conservative success as a result.

In 2017 most people assumed Jeremy Corbyn was heading for a crushing defeat. As it was, many Conservative voters stayed at home and left-leaning voters who disliked Corbyn voted Labour anyway, with the result that it was Theresa May who suffered net losses in the end.

Expectation management can help to turn a party’s vote out or keep it at home, and it will set the tone for the national narrative in the days and months after an election. Getting it right is crucial.

The set of elections being contested in just under three weeks’ time should be favourable to Labour: every seat in every London borough is up for election, along with seats in every other metropolitan borough council in England. There are also a series of district and unitary authorities heading to the polls.

Most of the councils facing elections this year are unlikely to change hands: they are either district councils with huge Conservative majorities, or London and metropolitan boroughs already held by Labour.

Outside of the capital, most of the likely gains for both of the two largest parties are likely to be at the expense of UKIP. In 2014, the last time this set of elections was contested, the vote took place on the same day as the ballot for seats in the European Parliament, and UKIP scooped up a huge number of seats at the peak of their electoral success. Those seats could return to either Labour or the Conservatives, although neither party is taking those kinds of gains for granted.

It is in London where the Conservatives seem to have played the smarter expectation management game. The common assumption is that Labour will wrest control of Barnet, Westminster and Wandsworth councils from the Conservatives, and that Kensington and Chelsea and Hillingdon are also in play. Labour will almost certainly make gains in terms of seats in these councils, but can they win them all? Barnet is, on paper, do-able, although the recent furore over anti-Semitism could harm Labour’s chances in a borough with a large Jewish population.

Wandsworth and Westminster are a different story. In both cases a party requires 31 council seats for a majority administration, and, as things stand, Labour holds 19 and 15 seats respectively. In Kensington and Chelsea and Hillingdon the mountain is even harder to climb. Labour traditionally struggles to turn its vote out (typically 60% of Labour supporters will vote compared to 80% of Conservative) and in local elections, without the airtime given to a General Election campaign, that problem is exacerbated.

Whilst large swings are not unheard of, Labour has allowed the consensus to be that they will take a minimum of three councils. Conversely, the Conservatives are well-placed to turn a story which will almost certainly involve a net loss of their council seats into one focused on them outperforming expectations.