THE WESTMINISTER COMMENTARIAT are only interested in local election results to the extent they contribute to their national narrative about the standing of party leaders. But voters don’t treat local elections as a national opinion poll. They understand they are voting about who runs their local councils, and give a verdict about what the parties are offering at local level.
Some Labour councils have distinctly chequered track records in office. This generates an anti-incumbency factor where people are not motivated to vote for a Labour council that has let them down, irrespective of what they might feel about the national leadership.
Take the loss of Derby Council, where the leader lost his seat. Unbelievably, some commentators have tried to blame the defeat on local Corbynite MP Chris Williamson, rather than voters taking a dim view of a Labour council attacking the pay and conditions of its teaching assistants. So Labour council leaders also have to take their share of responsibility where results don’t go as we would wish. A number put their names to a letter telling the NEC to back off from interfering in the affairs of Labour group decisions on local councils. In that case, they can hardly offload responsibility when these decisions are unpopular with the electorate.
Corbyn out-performs sitting councillors
Only 12 months ago, after last May’s local elections, commentators were telling us that Corbyn’s Labour was heading for electoral disaster at the June general election, based on disappointing local election results. They were duly confounded by a wave of enthusiasm for Corbyn’s transformative offer on a national level which doesn’t exist in the same way for local authorities. This is just as true now.
Even on the BBC’s ‘projected national vote share‘ Labour would be the largest party in Parliament were these results to be replicated at a general election. But there is every reason to believe that Labour’s national standing is again being underestimated, since young and previously disengaged voters weren’t motivated to vote in the same numbers at local elections. With a higher general election turnout, Labour’s performance is likely to improve which, of course, it will need to.
The party’s performance has to be judged against 2014, a high watermark under Ed Miliband’s leadership. With so many council seats already Labour, it was always going to be harder to make significant additional gains. But Labour has made steady progress in its London target seats, consolidating support (other than in Barnet - where the antisemitism controversy has been utilised by political opponents to tarnish the party’s reputation).
We should aim high but manage expectations
The balance between between managing expectations in the capital and setting stretching campaign targets was tricky. In the general election, the party machine was too conservative in its targeting with the result that too much activist energy was wasted in seats which were already safe. Perhaps the stick has been bent too far in the other direction at the locals. Even so, Momentum’s campaigning - with the tireless Owen Jones - helped Labour to come within 141 votes of taking Tory Wandsworth, and the gains made put Labour in a good position to take the council next time around.
Commentators have been ready to argue that Labour is failing to make breakthroughs outside of London. The local election results disprove this, with Labour taking control of councils from Plymouth in the south to Kirklees in Yorkshire. The Tory’s flagship council in thenorth – Traffordin Greater Manchester – is now in no overall control following Labour gains. In true blue Tory Woking, Labour saw its vote share increase by over 20%, while in Thurrock seats were taken from UKIP.
Nevertheless the results, while far from being the disaster loudly proclaimed by the likes of Chuka Umunna and Alistair Campbell, weren’t good enough to foster any undue sense of satisfaction or complacency. Labour still faces challenges in capitalising on the Tory disarray over Brexit, and overcoming internal sabotage from embittered opponents.
Leave voters can’t be left behind
In particular, there were some disappointing results in the post-industrial midlands which voted Leave in the EU referendum. YouGov polling shows a 7% swing from Labour to the Tories among C2DE voters since January, when Labour’s position on remaining in a form of customs union seemed to soften the stance on Brexit. In areas like this, Labour does have to work on developing its appeal, although it hardly helps to have a concentration of malcontent local MPs like Jess Phillips, Ian Austin and John Spellar badmouthing the party’s national leadership in the media on a regular basis.
A new breed of councillors gives us hope
While psephologists and pundits only look at the overall numbers of councillors elected and councils controlled, voters are also interested in quality as well as quantity. Thanks to the waves of new members into the party, in some areas at least it has been possible both to select and elect councillors who more faithfully reflect the wishes of Labour members, activists and voters.
Take Haringey, where a number of passionate anti-HDV housing campaigners have been elected as Labour councillors and are in a position to run the council in a way which better reflects the views of the community. They aren’t always in a majority, but all over the country a better intake of radical councillors will help to improve the party’s local performance.
Labour Briefing June 2018
is Secretary of Brent Central Constituency Labour Party