Thursday’s local elections can at best be described as murky. There were gains and losses for both of the two main parties which will be cause for concern and tribulation. Yet one thing that is for sure is that 2014 seems a long time ago, and the political scene in the aftermath of Brexit is ever more confusing and unpredictable.
If the Conservative campaign has shown anything, it’s that after eight years in government, two Prime Ministers, four resignations in the last six months and one of the biggest political scandals in recent times occurring a week before the vote, it’s that there certainly isn’t a better alternative. By the time the Labour Party had been in office for eight years, they were losing 4,000 council seats. Contrast this with the Conservative net loss of 33, there is certainly cause for cautious optimism. Yet when we consider this in more depth, the collapse of UKIP, losing 123 councillors, has morphed the Conservative party into the party of Brexit. Increasingly, voters are pushing Theresa May into an ever-tighter corner, where not only her legacy as PM, but her party’s electoral wellbeing, relies on her management of Brexit and Brexiters alike.
The collapse of UKIP, losing 123 councillors, has morphed the Conservative party into the party of Brexit
This is no clearer than in the West Midlands: May’s party, despite being in government, gained a staggering 28 councillors, contrasting to Labour’s net loss of nine in the region. This is an area where UKIP previously held 21 seats in the region, including their MEP and former leadership candidate Bill Etheridge and voted to leave the EU by 59.3%. It is therefore clear that Tory success is in areas that voted heavily to leave the EU, and suggests the extent of the Conservative transformation to the party of Brexit. Yet this is no easy task for Theresa May as her party remains heavily divided over the issue, and their results will only embolden the resolve of many hardcore Brexiters.
Of course, the other edge of the Brexit sword is the Tories’ incapacity to speak for Remainer liberal conservatives. In areas like Trafford, which they had held for 14 years, they relinquished control to Labour having lost five seats. This has resulted in every Manchester council now being under Labour control: they are now off the electoral map in the nation’s third biggest city. In South Cambridgeshire they lost a staggering 16 councillors, as the Liberal Democrats gained to a resounding victory. These councils share a pro-remain result in the EU referendum and showcase the electoral shortcomings of project Brexit for the Conservatives, in which the conservative hostility to internationalism is surely undermining them.
The Labour Party in contrast had an even more interesting evening. A net gain of 77 seats is nothing to be scoffed at, especially when we consider that when these seats were last contested Ed Miliband looked a shoe-in for Downing Street. The Labour Party did particularly well in London, gaining 62 seats, their best result in the Capital since 1979. Moreover, they won councils in Plymouth from the Conservatives and gained control of Kirklees and Tower Hamlets.
On the face of it, this would be a successful local election, with the opposition party gaining considerably more seats than the government. Yet if Labour can be accused of anything, it’s a failure of expectation management. London Mayor Sadiq Khan put it, ‘No area of London is unwinnable’; John McDonnell suggested the entirety of London would be painted red. Yet despite their admirable seat gains, and almost certain consolidation of specific councils, Labour failed to make significant inroads in terms of councils, where they had previously suggested they may. Labour gained multiple seats in Wandsworth and Westminster, but these gains were not enough to take control of each borough. Indeed, in some areas of London such as Hillingdon – which some had touted as a potential Labour target – they Tories actually gained seats. Therefore, despite Labour gains in London, due to the previous expectation of waves of Tory Councils falling one can question whether the Labour machine should be pleased.
If Labour can be accused of anything, it’s a failure of expectation management.
Moreover, there is reason to believe that the anti-semitism row hurt Labour in London. This was shown in Barnet, a council Labour really should have taken control of, after previously having no majority they lost control to the Conservatives. Barnet has the largest Jewish community of any council in the UK, and in the words of one of their former councillors: “too many Jewish life-long Labour voters could not bring themselves to vote Labour. This affected all of the key wards that Labour had to win.” This is a chilling analysis of any election in the 21st century and conveys the institutional and public relations issues the Labour Party is facing. It conveys the inactivity and complete incompetence displayed by the Labour hierarchy, having seriously damaged the trust of the Jewish community. I struggle to see a route in which the Labour party can mend these relations easily, certainly whilst the current leadership through their stringent scepticism of Zionism and wealth legitimise stereotypical anti-semitic bile.
Indeed, on popular hard-left Facebook pages such as Red Labour and Jeremy Corbyn for PM, I see anti-semitic sentiment constantly in comments, often whilst expressing scepticism that there is any problem whatsoever. Anti-semitism should have died with Nazi Germany, and its resurgence in Labour currently can only be accredited to Jeremy Corbyn directly.
Yet whilst the anti-semitism dimension of these local elections for Labour was certainly the most alarming for non-Labour supporters, the biggest headache for those within the party will surely be its inability to made significant gains in traditionally white working-class areas. As mentioned previously, the Tories had a very good night in the Midlands. However, I suggest it was not necessarily a good night for the Tories, but rather just a shocking night for Labour. They lost overall control of Nuneaton and Bedworth, and Derby, whilst also suffering losses in Walsall and failed to make inroads in Duly. Their midlands seats are considered the zeitgeists of any election, with many of them being incredibly marginal seats. For the Labour party to be losing ground in these areas in comparison to 2014 (and when the Labour party failed to win in 2015) should be an incredibly worrying development. Even more so when we consider the state of the current Conservative party. As Alastair Campbell put it: “You’re talking here about the government, which is possibly the worst government in living memory. You’ve had Windrush, you’ve had Grenfell, you’ve had the Brexit negotiations going from bad to worse, you’ve had the National Health Service under more pressure than it’s been for a long, long time, serial incompetence day after day after day, yet the public do not seem in nearly sufficient numbers remotely interested in supporting the Labour party.”
It has been presumed since Labour’s stunning comeback in 2017 that they are the government ‘in waiting’, and that the moment an election is called the Tories will vacate Downing Street for Comrade Corbyn to move in. However on these results the Labour triumphalism must surely stop and a reality check of their progress taken. If estimations of the vote shares are accurate, then both parties secured 35% of the vote, which many have suggested means that the Labour Party has gained around 2% of the vote since the last election. However, with the bettering performance of the Liberal Democrats, largely at the expense of the Tories, I would suggest that really, the Labour party has at best plateaued since last year’s general election and that their course to government is far rockier than the left-wing bubble of Momentum would have you believe. They can credit improper media coverage of their results all they want. Labour did win more seats than the Tories, Labour did have a very good election in metropolitan areas. But Labour did not make the inroads that a party up against such a limp government that they should have in the key areas which will decide the next election. Labour must stop preaching to the choir and make significant strides to connect with voters who currently see Jeremy Corbyn as dangerous and incompetent. For it to be conceived a given that the Tories will win the UKIP vote by two-thirds is not good enough, especially when we consider the hordes of Momentum activists they have at their disposal. Labour have a historic opportunity on their horizon, with an incompetent government and motivated activists, but they are currently wasting it.
Labour must stop preaching to the choir and make significant strides to connect with voters who currently see Jeremy Corbyn as dangerous and incompetent.
Contrastingly, to both Labour and the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats has an overwhelmingly positive night. Gaining 75 councillors and 4 councils, the latter being the most of any party is a significant step in the right direction. I think Layla Moran MP summed up the party’s feelings perfectly when she said, ‘It was nice to wake up and not feel sad’. This is a sentiment shared by many Liberal Democrats, with these results being a sign of green shoots for the party after eight years of decline since they went into Coalition.
Perhaps most significantly for the Liberal Democrats was their capacity to exceed expectations; many including myself predicted they’d gain 20-30 councillors and probably take back control of Kingstone council. However, to take control of South Cambridgeshire and Three Rivers was a shock to many, especially the former considering the number of seats they had to gain. Indeed, they were the only party not to lose a council, despite significant Tory efforts in Sutton and South Lakeland. And of course, a special mention must go to the outstanding Liberal Democrat victory in the ward of Eynsham and Cassington.
Overwhelmingly though, despite the party’s provocation, the Liberal Democrats are a party of remain backing areas. Despite making three gains in Sunderland, they consistently lost seats in leave backing areas, such as five losses in Harrogate, four in Sefton and three in Blackburn. There may be small losses in the scheme of things they add up, and are further suggesting the transition of the party’s support towards middle class university graduates. Some may suggest that this is a winning strategy, but with their main campaigning point of Brexit ending in a years’ time, I suggest a strategy for going forward is needed.
Overall, despite little significant change within the electoral map, these were revealing elections. The Conservatives have every reason to be grinning after their excellent results in the areas where elections are fought. After eight years, and the up most incompetence over a verity of issues, not to mention one of the biggest political scandals ever the week before the election, their grasp on Downing Street looks as secure as ever. The Liberal Democrats also have cause for smiles. These were not monumental gains for them, and they are nowhere near the 25% of the vote they gained pre-coalition, but were undoubtable progress. They must take glee from their capacity to win in well-educated liberal areas against the Conservatives, something the Tories must be vary of. However, I still maintain that they must do more to connect with non-remain voters in order to get anywhere near their former levels of support. As for the Labour party, it must feel strange for a party who gained the most councillors to be the butt of my criticism, but such was the expectation and the need for significant gains by the Labour party, and the localism of their success that one can only conclude that their supposed march since the last election has been over blown and they still have far to go before Jeremy Corbyn walks the corridors of power.
Featured image: WikiCommons, Flickr