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Decoding the latest English lesson

A basic rule in my line of work is never, ever, think you can translate local election results into Westminster numbers.

Unfortunately, this sound advice tends to be forgotten the moment the first ballot box is opened; last week’s battle for control of English councils being no exception. It’s true that the same electoral wards make up parliamentary constituencies. From then on however any correlation is an illusion. Different loyalties and different candidates go into the voting mix regardless of whether the motivation is bins or Brexit.

Other variances are that elections held the other side of Offa’s Dyke are staggered over different years and that local government is a mish-mash of counties, districts, metros and unitaries – along with a sprinkling of elected mayors.

So you can’t even make like-for-like comparisons, let alone extrapolate results into national standings.

If you cast your mind back to this time last year, we had council elections right across the UK; not just England. The Conservatives made significant gains nationwide, sparking speculation of a 60-90 seat majority for Theresa May in the coming general election.

We now know how badly off-target those estimates turned out to be but that doesn’t stop media folks from once again attempting to join up the wrong dots.

While it’s true that Conservatives saw nothing like the predicted wipe-out, it’s also worth noting that it was mostly ‘informed’ press sources who were making those forecasts.

The background story to the night was Ukip’s collapse – and how so few of the disaffected chose to come home to Labour.

Mrs May was clearly relieved. You felt she understood the astonishment of one polling analyst who disconsolately observed how a ruling party with an austerity agenda shouldn’t be gaining councils anywhere, let alone the nation’s capital. Both she and Jezza trotted out familiar narratives that portrayed contradictory outcomes as “solid progress”. Labour made gains around the country though we’ll probably be hearing a little less about the party’s outright invincibility in London. Party leaders found more traction pointing to the failings in each other’s campaigns rather than any successes of their own. There was much talk about “listening to voters”, which is ironic when you consider how dialogue gets drowned out on social media nowadays.

Some reckoned that Lib Dems should have made more ground, although this misrepresents the degree to which the party has got back its mojo and is slowly rebuilding a once formidable local government base.

I despair when I hear broadcasters who’ve never put their names on a ballot paper talk inanely about parties “breaking out of comfort zones”; as if overcoming the entrenched polarisation of UK politics is somehow a doddle.

Twenty years ago, similarly authoritative voices were complaining about the crowded centre ground and wanted more distinctive politics. Go figure.

What hasn’t changed is that too many directly involved in national politics, and those on the sidelines, still regard local government as appendages of Westminster and/or Cardiff Bay.

If local democracy is ever to be meaningful, then that’s where reform needs to start.

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