Page last updated at 11:31 GMT, Friday, 2 May 2008 12:31 UK

Poll watch: Election number crunching

The BBC's political research editor, David Cowling, examines what the local election results say about the state of the three main parties.

Party teller ticks off a voter's name at a polling station in Gloucestershire
The Conservatives' projected national vote share was the biggest since 1992

On Thursday 1 May, votes were cast in 137 English and 22 Welsh local authorities, as well as across London for both Mayor and the city's Assembly.

About 100 councils counted overnight, as soon as the polls closed at 10pm. Another 50 or so councils, plus London, only began their counts on Friday morning. In total, some 13,000 candidates contested about 4,000 seats.

At the time of writing London votes are still being scanned and counted electronically and results continue to trickle in from the Friday counts elsewhere.

However, we have enough evidence already to draw the broad outline of what happened on 1 May 2008.

Grim night

It was an unambiguous success story for the Conservatives, a very grim night for Labour and a lacklustre performance from the Liberal Democrats.

For several decades now the BBC has collected individual ward voting figures from a sample of local councils at each May's local elections.

Only wards where the three main parties stood in the previous election (four years earlier when the current councillors last defended their seats) and in the present election are included in the exercise.

Inevitably the main focus was on the Conservative-Labour battle and the striking similarities between 2008 and the nadir of Conservative fortunes in 1995

This data enables us to estimate a Projected National Share of the vote for each of the three main parties - figures which attempt to show how the entire country would have voted in these local elections, not just the councils polling that year.

In the 2008 elections we collected the votes cast in over 900 wards in 50 councils and on the basis of 700 of these we were able to project the following national shares: Conservatives 44%, Lib Dems 25% and Labour 24%.

This was the biggest Conservative share since 1992 and the worst Labour share on record.

Tipping point?

As for the Lib Dems, the May 2007 local elections resulted in their biggest net loss of seats for at least 30 years and while they staunched that flow this time they still ended up with a lower projected share than a year ago.

But inevitably the main focus was on the Conservative-Labour battle and the striking similarities between 2008 and the nadir of Conservative fortunes in 1995.

In May 1995 we projected a Conservative share of 25% (Labour 24% in 2008) and a Labour share of 46% (Conservative 44% in 2008).

We all recall that two years after 1995 Labour secured a truly spectacular general election result off the back of the biggest swing by far for any party in a post-1945 general election.

Trust in parties

However, in the month before May 1995's local elections the average Labour lead over the Conservatives in the opinion polls was 28%. And for the previous 16 months Labour's average monthly poll lead was never less than 20%.

By contrast, the average of seven polls in April 2008 gave the Conservatives a nine point lead and in the 16 months prior to that the Conservative average monthly share never reached double figures.

So, we should be cautious about drawing direct parallels between Gordon Brown's current miseries and those of the John Major in 1995.

There could well be a "tipping point" for the Conservatives as there was for Labour in the mid 1990s but it hasn't happened yet according to the opinion polls.

Perhaps one reason the Conservatives have not yet been able to marshal the level of support which rallied to Labour more than a decade ago can be found in the depressing answers to a question asked in the BBC's election night programme opinion poll.

ICM asked respondents which party "can be trusted to keep its promises"?

Some 17% said the Conservatives, 17% said Labour and 16% said the Lib Dems. But 58% said "none of them".

It doesn't seem to be difficult to persuade people that your political opponents aren't up to the job.

But it seems much harder these days to persuade them that you are.

Poll Watch: March 2008
09 Apr 08 |  UK Politics
Poll Watch: February 2008
03 Mar 08 |  UK Politics
Poll Watch: January 2008
08 Feb 08 |  UK Politics
Poll Watch: Review of 2007
21 Dec 07 |  UK Politics
Poll Watch: November 2007
07 Dec 07 |  UK Politics
Poll Watch: October 2007
08 Nov 07 |  UK Politics

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