The claim

“We got more votes than Labour. You wouldn’t believe it listening to Ed Miliband, but actually they were defeated in the local elections, which is pretty staggering for an opposition.”
George Osborne, 08 May 2011

The background

Almost everyone except Nick Clegg is claiming that Thursday’s local election results were good news. The Lib Dem leader was forced to concede his party had take “a real knock” after presiding over the party’s worst showing at local level since the 1980s.

“North, south, east and west, Labour is making gains and coming back”, said Ed Miliband, after his party emerged as the biggest winners.

But even as the votes were being counted, Conservative sources were briefing journalists that they were on course to win a bigger share of the overall vote than Labour.

Speaking to the BBC’s Andrew Marr on Sunday, Mr Osborne was keen to present Thursday as a victory on those terms. Is he right to call this a defeat for Labour?

The analysis

The English local elections saw more than 9,500 seats contested in 279 local authorities across the country. The Lib Dems lost 748 councillors, Labour gained 857 and the Tories were up by 86.

But the Chancellor was keen to talk about who ended up with the biggest share of the total numbers of votes cast.

Just like in a General Election, that percentage doesn’t necessarily translate into the numbers of seats that give parties overall control, and the Conservatives themselves admitted to FactCheck that it’s a “notional” figure, but it’s still a useful measure of success or failure.

The first thing to point out is that no one yet knows the final numbers for the different parties’ share of the vote. No election analyst has yet added up every vote cast on May 5, and it will be months before any of them does so.

But various projections have been made that aim to tell us how the nation as a whole would have voted if local elections had been held everywhere. They use complex formulae to take into account the fact that not everyone, like councils in London, went to the polls.

Conservative analysts looked at a sample of 1,000 council wards as the results came in on Thursday, and quickly said they were projected to win 38 per cent of the total vote, with Labour on 37 and the Lib Dems on 17 per cent.

Within days, Professors Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher of the University of Plymouth had produced their National Equivalent Vote, which also put the Tories and Labour on 38 and 37 per cent respectively and gave the Lib Dems 16 per cent.

Professor John Curtice of the University of Strathclyde used a slightly different methodology when he performed the same exercise for the BBC, and his projection puts Labour slightly ahead on 37 per cent. He gives the Conservatives 35 per cent and adds to the Lib Dems’ misery by reducing their share to just 15 per cent.

So two studies carried out by some of the most highly respected academics in the business declare different “winners”.

We’ll let Lewis Baston,  Senior Research Fellow at Democratic Audit, an independent research organisation which audits democracy and human rights in the UK, adjudicate.

He told FactCheck: “Basically, the local elections showed the Conservatives and Labour more or less equal in votes. If different but respectable statistical methods produce plus one and minus two, you can say it’s effectively level within the limitations of measuring and modelling techniques.

“It’s a bit pointless for either the Conservatives or Labour to claim a ‘win’ on this measure – it’s too close to call.”

So Mr Osborne may have jumped the gun slightly, but all our experts agree that he is right to be pleased with how things went.

Professors Rallings, Thrasher and Curtice all said before the election that Ed Miliband could only claim victory if Labour won 1,000 seats – roughly the number that would take the party back to where it stood in 1999.

The last time the same seats were contested in 2007, Tony Blair was about to hand over the reins to Gordon Brown and Labour’s stock was painfully low in the polls.

Mr Baston said 800 seats was “the bottom end of respectability” for Labour but said the final result was “good going” for the Tories, whose vote may have been galvanised by the party’s campaign for a No vote in the simultaneous AV referendum.

More worrying for Mr Osborne is the question of what a Tory “victory” in terms of total votes would mean if repeated at a General Election.

Most analysts think that the inherent advantage enjoyed by Labour when it comes to winning Parliamentary seats means the Conservatives still would not get a majority at Westminster with these kind of figures.

As Professors Rallings and Thrasher pointed out in the Sunday Times, the Tories’ 38 per cent share of the vote would only translate into 270 seats, down 37. Labour’s percentage would be slightly less but would bag them 318 seats, up 60.

So the result would be another hung Parliament with Labour able to form a majority. The Lib Dems would still be part of this notional coalition despite losing 30 of its 57 seats.

Lewis Baston broadly agrees. Like Rallings and Thrasher, and despite the Conservatives’ focus on resizing Parliamentary constituencies, he thinks that’s largely because of falling turnout in traditional Labour heartlands.

Whereas in the 1960s the turnout in Labour strongholds was on a par with areas dominated by the Conservatives, it has plummeted in recent times to the point where half as many voters might win a safe Labour seat.

Labour’s vote is still enough to win in the party’s stronger seats but the party has few voters in weaker areas. By contrast, the Lib Dem and Conservative vote is relatively high even in constituencies where the party is not winning.

The verdict

FactCheck is going to have to pull George Osborne up on a very premature claim of victory as far as this one narrow measure of electoral success is concerned.

As our experts point out, though, he’s unlikely to lose too much sleep, as the Tories have indeed done a remarkable job of shoring up their support in what is widely considered a mid-term popularity contest.

Prof Curtice suggests their solid showing on Thursday is mostly to do with the collapse of the Lib Dem vote, and tells us little about how the Tories would fare in a straight fight with Labour.

What ought to trouble Mr Osborne even more than that is the fact that, if the Tory “victory” had been mirrored in General Election results, it still wouldn’t have secured the party an outright majority in Parliament.

David Cameron has talked about tackling the anti-Tory bias by reducing the size of Parliament and revising constituency boundaries.

But our analysts are among a number of academics who think there may be few quick fixes for Labour’s built-in advantage.

Analysis by Patrick Worrall