2022, UK Locals, And The Midterm Penalty

What Britain Might Be Able To Tell Us About 2022

One of the core tenets of 2022 Democratic optimism is the idea that the Midterm Penalty is dead, or certainly that it’s dying. Even the most robust Republican believers would acknowledge that the way Democrats would win in 2022 is, basically, an ahistorical aberration where the usual Midterm Penalty is not exacted against the Biden administration in the way that it usually is - and where these people would disagree is in an analysis of how likely that is. Everyone is pretty much on the same page about what a good Democratic 2022 would look like, if we somehow knew the result beforehand and had to retcon the way we got from where we are now to the result. But again, the disagreement is in how much to care about the Midterm Penalty.

Because I’m a nerd, I’ve been watching a bunch of old UK local elections in recent days - the yearly elections to local councils that serve as a test of the Government in Westminster. In the UK, local government is party political, and while independents and local factors can, and often do, make individual results wonky, in aggregate, the data is generally useful in determining how a party is tracking. In red are the New Labour years, with the seat changes incurred by the governing in every set of local elections that didn’t happen on the same day as a UK general election, in Green are the Tory changes in the Coalition years, and in blue are the Tory gains and losses in the post-2015 era. (Before anyone asks, the losses in 2011-14 are just Tory, but if we added the Lib Dem losses in, the only difference would be 2011 flipping to a sizable loss and 2012-14 becoming much bigger net losses.)

In the New Labour years, the Midterm Penalty was real and consistent - they would get smashed at local elections and then win the subsequent General elections, because voters might have been willing to give Blair a kicking, but they weren’t ever willing to elect the Tories. The seat losses started to fall away towards the end, but that was mostly a function of the fact they lost so many seats over their 13 years in office there were less to lose by 2009. Even in the Coalition years, the penalty was consistent - and before you say “but 2011”, what happened was the Tories lost seats to Labour mostly in the north and midlands, and then won a ton more Lib Dem seats in the south, so they got a net gain of seats while still getting a kicking in the national race, as it were. They did worse midterm, especially in losing seats to UKIP in 2013 and 2014, and then got a lot of those votes back when it came to a general election in 2015. All of this should be sounding very, very familiar to Americans, used to Midterm kickings of the incumbent President’s party before routinely reelecting that same President the next cycle. And then, we run into the era where this falls apart.

In 2016 and 2018, the Tories lost seats, but they lost what made up 5% of their council seats before the election in 2016 and 2.6% of their council seats before the 2018 elections - in other words, they were functionally status quo results. Yes, a 5% decline in House seats for Nancy Pelosi would be a GOP majority in the House, but the point isn't that these results will be directly replicated in America. In 9 of the 10 New Labour years, the government suffered seat losses above 200 seats, and in 3 of the 4 Coalition years, the Tories suffered the same. In the 5 years of solo-Tory rule, that's happened once, and that was 2019, when Theresa "Brexit Means Brexit" May had to delay Brexit just weeks before polling day because her party couldn't agree on what exit looked like. Shockingly, a party in a civil war with itself, and that failed to accomplish the singular goal it had to accomplish, got smashed. Shocking, that.

Governments getting smashed at local elections was one of the most consistent features of British elections for decades, and now, in 4 of the last 5 sets of non-concurrent locals, the Government has either gained seats or held their ground. This long term historical trend has gone up in smoke, in effect, and you see it in Scotland too, where the SNP made huge gains in 2017 in Glasgow despite having been 10 years in Government in Holyrood, and it being midterm for the Scottish Parliament electoral cycle. What does it all mean? In some ways, nothing - this isn’t the basis for a prediction about the US, obviously. But what it is is a damn interesting knock against the idea of history continuing forever.

If you think the Midterm Penalty is an indelible fact of American politics, fill your boots, but it is probably worth noting that it used to be an indelible fact of British politics too, and now it’s about as consistent as a coin flip. Could it come roaring back in 2022? I mean, maybe, but there is no reason to think the old pattern matters anymore when every recent British local election panel is just a Tory politician saying “back in the New Labour days the government was losing hundreds of seats, and we’re not!” and the Labour representative unconvincingly making excuses for why it isn’t a pathetic result. If this golden rule, this consistent pattern, is dying out in England, why on earth should we be so confident it is holding true in America?

My claim about 2022 isn’t that a Democratic year is assured, even though, as I tweeted while doing a drunk AMA today, my current 2022 forecast is Dems gaining three Senate seats and a small increase in the House majority. My claim is that a Democratic year would be neither shocking or even particularly surprising, and this evidence points to that. Plainly, if there is evidence that elections held midterm are no longer being seen as chances to kick the government in a comparable democracy, that fact seems relevant for our expectations in 2022. And, plainly, if you want to ignore this evidence, that’s your right, but it doesn’t make it smart.

I wrote in January that the Midterm Penalty is dying because of partisanship and polarization, and I’ve written at length about why 2010 and 2014 are not leading indicators for 2022 that so many think they are. But what is really clear is that no amount of evidence will convince those who have decided what 2022 will be. What is also clear is that England used to have a huge anti-government trend in elections held midterm, and that effect is dying before our eyes. At the very least, that might mean something for 2022.