It seems that the momentum Labour had around the general election has faded, basically stagnating in the polls, a point or two behind the Tories.
Indeed, we’ve seen essentially the same result as that of the 2017 general election, with both parties tied on 35% of the national vote. But let’s be clear about the facts.
Labour did not do badly in the 2018 local elections. They gained 78 councillors and saw a better result than Miliband did in 2014. Where Labour did go wrong is here they would hope to be doing better, and they set their expectations substantially higher than they should have.
Warren Morgan, leader of Brighton and Hove Council, said that while he did not wish “to dismiss successes in places like Adur and Worthing, and the increased vote share in London”, ultimately “Labour needs to be doing much better in towns across the North and Midlands if it is to secure a majority at the next election”.
He echoes the thoughts of many Labour activists, who see the Tories’ shambolic Brexit strategy and their handling of the Windrush scandal as a sign Labour should be up hundreds of seats. From these results, the BBC has predicted that Labour would be the largest party in Parliament, but only by a margin of 3 MPs. Other parties seem to be spinning this line too, with a local Oxford Lib Dem councillor Stephen Goddard saying “It was a disappointing night for Labour” because “against a shambolic government, the official opposition should be doing a lot better than this”. Labour are at the peak of their membership and activism, and they should be able to mobilise that movement to win larger than they did.
What is significant about this election is that despite the collapse of UKIP, which many assumed would immediately head over to the Tories, Labour made gains. The situation that Miliband was working with in 2014 was a mass exodus of working class Labour voters leaving the Labour Party and joining UKIP.
It seems that a substantial number of these voters have returned to Labour, or at least had their places filled by more metropolitan voters. The latter is most likely true, with most of the areas that Labour did worse in being marginal seats in Brexit voting areas. This is indicative of a general shift throughout the country, as Labour slowly becomes a more metropolitan party, with working class voters being evenly split between Labour and the Conservatives at the most recent election. Class no longer seems to decide how an individual will vote, in stark contrast to Labour’s history.
Alex Bruce, leader of the Oxford Union Conservative Association said the same: “The Conservatives had a solid but not exceptional night, and took control of Basildon, Peterborough and Barnet despite Labour predictions of a wipeout.” Expectations were clearly set too high. While Labour would like to be winning councils like Westminster, it’s not realistic with the current state of the polls.
People are obviously disappointed, but this is a lesson to Labour that if they want to be setting their expectations to winning big, they need to actually put the work in place to do so.
But we should remember that local elections are not simply a poll for the general election. Turnout is incredibly low, and Labour was already in control of plenty of councils around the country, so there was a local backlash against the incumbent councils, which is natural. Issues like bins, homelessness, and road were often the centre of debate, not Brexit or Windrush. Of course, national issues do matter, with Labour’s current anti-semitism scandal being attributed as the reason for their failure to win Barnet.
However, it seems discouraging for Labour that they weren’t even able to win the council where the Grenfell Tower stood, despite serious blame being thrown at the Conservative Party for the tragedy.
However, other Labour activists are taking a more hopeful attitude. Local Oxford councillor Linda Smith said: “We had a goodresult in Oxford, increasing Labour’s majority on the council by one, despite the sad defeat of our colleague Dee Sinclair in Quarry & Risinghurst. This fits the trend which has emerged for Labour nationally since the General Election, with Labour consolidating support in university towns and London”, but even she goes on to say that Labour “needs to develop messages and policies which will appeal to voters in the postindustrial towns of the Midlands and North of England if we are to hope to win the next general election.”
Labour shouldn’t be too disappointed about these results, since they definitely have time before the next election to make progress. But neither should they be complacent. If the election was held tomorrow, it seems very likely that they wouldn’t get a majority, and may even see Tories get into power with a coalition from the Lib Dems. While the momentum has faded, it seems possible that Labour can resurrect for a successful win in the next election, but there clearly needs to be serious changes within the party to get to that place.