BY STEPHEN BOAKES, Editor-in-Chief
A week on from the local elections the dust has settled with the Tories and Labour remaining locked in the standstill that emerged from last years general election. The Tories have held on and Labour have failed to make the breakthrough required for them to win the next general election. UKIP have been wiped out, and the Liberal Democrats begin their slow fightback.
No Labour Breakthrough
The election was embarrassing for Labour. Having been bigged up as the election that Corbyn’s Labour would finally breakthrough as the next party of government, the night ended up a damp squib. Setting high expectations of a Tory wipe-out in London, they failed to take Westminster, Hillingdon, or the much-talked-about Wandsworth, where Sadiq Khan had even turned up at the count with the expectation of making a historic victory speech only to leave redfaced later in the night. More embarrassingly for Labour, the London borough of Barnet with its significant Jewish population had moved from no overall control to a Conservative gain. Accusations of anti-semitism in the party have seen areas with significant Jewish populations turn away from Labour, the Party must get a grip on this issue if it hopes to win a general election. Corbyn, who had been scheduled for a celebratory visit to the borough to put-to-bed these accusations, instead had to travel out of London to Plymouth, where the collapse in the UKIP vote brought about their only council gain from the Tories.
Conservative rising-star Johnny Mercer MP for Plymouth Moor View, who took the seat by surprise from Labour in 2015 and increased his majority in 2017, hit out at government defence cuts citing defence as the key issue in the area. Plymouth has the largest operational naval base in Western Europe and its economy is heavily reliant on shipbuilding, the area is also home to Plymouth University which may also have had an effect. While gaining control of the council from the Conservatives, the Party, despite turbulent times for a governing party in power for eight-years, is failing to capitalise and eat into the Tory vote. Their council gains had not been due to any significant change in support for the Tories. Labour took control of Tower Hamlets from no overall control after the collapse of the former Tower Hamlets First Party block of independent candidates. Further ‘Leave’ voting Kirklees also went from No-Overall-Control to Labour who took two seats from the ‘Remain’ supporting Liberal Democrats. Labour has not made enough significant progress on the Tory vote in order to win a general election.
That is not to say that the night had not been successful for Labour. Afterall, they gained 79 seats and turned Wandsworth marginal, but 60 of these were in London, and Wandsworth was a heavy ‘Remain’ area with no Lib Dem presence. The party is consolidating its vote in London, and other urban areas, but failing to inflict heavy damage to the Tories and make significant progress in the rest of England. Vital if they have any hope of winning the next general election. Further, as Kirklees and Wandsworth show, they are continuing to balance ‘Remain’ and ‘Leave’ voters but how long can this last as the Liberal Democrats begin their resurgence. In contrast to Kirklees, ‘Leave’ voting areas Nuneaton and Bedworth, Derby, and Wigan all see significant Tory progress at the expense of Labour. At odds with the nationwide result, UKIP clings on to a seat in Derby and make their only gain by unseating the Labour leader of the council. Sheffield saw ‘Remain’ voters return three gains for the Liberal Democrats, two from Labour, and a local tree-felling scandal saw the Greens also take two. Labour’s continued lack of transparency on Brexit has led to erratic results both to their advantage and disadvantage. But to U-turn and adopt a pro-Remain or “Soft Brexit” stance as some moderates argue, while helping to see off the Liberal Democrats, would fail to sufficiently cut into the Tory vote to win a general election.
Corbyn-critic and rising star Dan Jarvis, MP for Barnsley Central, who had been expected to walk into Mayor of the Sheffield City Region, instead had to wait for the second-round with just under half the vote on a low turnout of 25.82%. Perhaps a sign of voter confusion or apathy over the role. With a lack of public consultation, and discussions continuing on the prospect of a Yorkshire-wide devolution deal, he remains without powers or funds while the devolution deadlock continues. Despite remaining an MP simultaneously, Jarvis follows Sadiq Khan and Andy Burham as the next centre-left Corbyn-critic to pursue a career outside of the Parliamentary Labour Party and beyond the influence of Corbynism. Long-term Corbyn-critic Heidi Alexander MP has announced her intention to resign from the Labour safe-seat of Lewisham to take up a post under Sadiq Khan as Deputy Mayor for Transport, a further loss to moderate Labour as Corbynism strengthens its hold on the party.
With Labour strengthening in London but failing to truly breakthrough elsewhere, questions must be asked whether Corbynism has peaked and whether it can win a general election?
A Relief for May
This election will come as a relief to Theresa May and the Conservative Party, who have suffered turbulent times negotiating Brexit and navigating the Windrush scandal that forced Amber Rudd’s resignation. Having been in power for eight-years, and in the current circumstances, a governing party would expect to see humiliating heavy losses. But the collapse of the UKIP vote saw gains across England make up for the haemorrhaging of 101 councillors in the capital with a mere net loss of 33 seats. The UKIP collapse saw Basildon turn blue, with gains from Labour returning Peterborough from no overall control. Labour lost ground to the Conservatives in their strongholds of Leave-voting Wakefield and ‘Remain’ voting Leeds. Despite being touted as a potential Labour gain, Hillingdon saw two seats turn blue from Labour, putting doubt on Labour’s hopes of unseating Boris Johnson at the next general election. In a rare glimpse, Theresa May looked jubilant and relaxed as she arrived at Wandsworth, where Sadiq Khan had planned for his victory speech, to celebrate the Conservatives holding on.
The “Brexit effect” saw ‘Leave’ voting Sutton give a Tory surge of 9 seats with the Liberal Democrats haemorrhaging 12 seats, despite remaining in overall control, with Tory gains across the country in ‘Leave’ voting areas. Particularly surging in ‘Leave’ voting Nuneaton and Bedworth and Derby, taking many seats from Labour. Whether this is due to Labour’s ambiguous Brexit stance or a wider rejection of Corbynism outside of London is yet to be seen. ‘Remain’ voting Trafford turned away from the Conservatives to Labour, turning the only blue stronghold in Greater Manchester to no overall control. The pro-Brexit policy of the government further saw the heavy ‘Remain’ London boroughs of Kingston and Richmond turn yellow as the Lib Dems surge. The Conservatives commitment to Brexit has been rewarded by ‘Leave’ voters, and while sacrificing ‘Remain’ areas in the process, the pressure is on Theresa May to stay committed and ride out this turbulent wave of Brexit. If by the next general election the Tories have held on and made a success of Brexit, they will be rewarded for doing so.
Lib Dem Fightback?
The Lib Dems have clawed themselves back to around 16% in this local election, a far cry from the 25% they would see in the pre-coalition days. The “Brexit effect” saw the Lib Dems take control of the strong ‘Remain’ areas of Richmond, Kingston, Three Rivers and South Cambridgeshire from the Conservatives with big majorities, and a strong showing in Labour Merton. The Lib Dems also made gains in ‘Leave’ voting Gosport and Hull where the ‘Remain’ vote rallied behind them. Overall they gained 75 councillors and 4 councils by presenting themselves as the ‘Remain’ party. A good tactic to once again become relevant, but they have made themselves toxic to ‘Leave’ voters in the process and remain way behind the pro-Brexit Labour and Conservative Parties. In order to make a big success, the Liberal Democrats will need a breakthrough in ‘Leave’ areas which seems unlikely. It is unlikely the party will have much of an impact until after Brexit is completed but with Vince Cable slowly but surely rebuilding their vote, the opportunity for Jo Swinson to lead the party to greater success in the post-Brexit world remains.
The Greens can celebrate a small net gain of 8 seats. But with Corbyn’s rise seemingly contradictory to their parties fortunes, they remain far from any significant breakthrough.
With UKIP’s job done, and the Conservatives and Labour seemingly picking up the Brexit torch, their collapse was almost a certainty, ending the night with 3 seats. Whilst backsliding on Brexit from the two main parties would likely see a resurgence, the likening to the Black Death from the Parties General Secretary seems an appropriate metaphor for a party that stormed the country only to fade away with a significant legacy. An appropriate end for a party steeped in satire.
With the Tories and Labour remaining locked in a standstill, neither making a significant breakthrough to win a general election, and neither heavily impacted by the scandals of anti-semitism and Windrush, they must both ride the turbulent wave of Brexit towards the next general election. Both Parties must go back to the drawing board, and find fresh and exciting visions to present to the country in the post-Brexit world, one capable of uniting the divisions in this country and winning a majority at the next general election.