May’s Local Elections are Corbyn’s Next Test. How Will Labour Do?

The continued saga over Ken Livingstone’s non-expulsion overshadowed the launch of Labour’s campaign for May 4th’s local government elections.

Perhaps unaware of irony, Jeremy Corbyn declared Labour to be strong party. To paraphrase When Harry Met Sally: “I’ll have what he’s having.” Although, to be fair, what other choice did he have? Certainly not the truth. The referendum result split his party, and his poor leadership has allowed the Tories to get away with defining Brexit however they wish. He is personally unpopular and divisive, and the party he leads now stands in the mid-twenties in opinion polls.

By-elections in Stoke and Copeland provided little comfort for those who disdain opinion polls. The only way to declare that Labour is in a strong position is if one ignores every single piece of evidence.

Corbyn has pinned his party’s fortunes to a campaign on the NHS and education funding. The precedent of the Copeland by-election where Labour predicted the death of babies in the event of a Conservative victory seems to indicate this is a losing strategy.

It may not be fair but Brexit dominates.

May’s elections sees contests in England, Wales and Scotland: 88 councils are being contested, 34 in England, 32 in Scotland and 22 in Wales. The last time the seats were contested in Wales and Scotland was in 2012; while in England they were contested in 2013. Then Ed Miliband was at the height of his popularity. Losses therefore mean that Corbyn’s party is faring less well than Miliband’s Labour.

Since 2012, there has been a dramatic shift in Scottish politics. The referendum propelled the SNP to their current dominance. Corbyn has been unable to turn around the party’s fortunes: in 2016 Labour lost its opposition status at Holyrood. His lack of credibility has worsened the situation.

Labour was neck and neck with the SNP one year after Alex Salmond won a Holyrood majority, winning 20 councils to the SNP’s 9; now they will be fighting for second place with Ruth Davidson’s Tories - with recent local by-elections favouring the latter. Some age-old Labour fortresses, such as Glasgow, North Lanarkshire and West Dunbartonshire, will fall. However, what will be remarkable is if the SNP manages to bring councils into its overall control despite the preferential system of Scottish (and Welsh) local elections. It will be a grim night north of the border.

In Wales, Labour is now the largest party, currently holding 580 council seats with Plaid Cymru on 170, the Tories on 108, and the Lib Dems on 75. Plaid hopes to advance on their share, capitalising on Labour’s Brexit malaise. There is also an unlikely opportunity for the Tories against Labour: they made gains in 2015 and Wales narrowly voted Brexit. Conservative victories in Wales would ease criticism that the prime minister is heading an English nationalist government.

In 2012, Labour made 231 gains at the other two parties’ expense. This year it will be seeking to hold on the ten councils it controls and the two it dominates. A pincer movement where Labour loses to the Tories on one hand and Plaid on the other would be yet another sign of Labour’s disintegration as a party of government.

the Tories are vulnerable - just not to Labour

In England, there are slim pickings for Labour. Of the six unitary authorities up for grabs, four of them are Lib Dem/Conservatives battles; there is little room for manoeuvre in Durham but in Northumberland a healthy opposition could make gains.

Of the remaining 28 councils, the Tories lead in all but four. Cumbria and Lancashire are councils where Labour is the dominant party but needs seats to gain overall control. They missed out in 2013 when Labour was ahead by 6-7 points; now they trail by double digits. In Derbyshire and Nottingham they should be aiming to build on their current slim majorities.

The most interesting results may be in those battlegrounds areas where the Conservatives dominate but whose voters backed Remain.

Labour is facing a humiliating night. The Lib Dems are the ones to watch.

John Curtice has warned there could be a 12-point swing from Labour to the Conservatives, with Labour in danger of losing control of those councils it is defending from 2013. The headline figures for Thrasher/Rallings are that the Conservatives will win 50 seats, and Labour lose 50; while UKIP will lose 100 and the Lib Dems gain 100.

That is how bad these elections could become: the comfort for Labour might be that UKIP are not advancing post-Brexit and that the Tories are vulnerable - just not to Labour.  

Of course, next month’s elections also include seven mayoral races, where Labour can expect to do better - or, at least, in Liverpool, Manchester and Tees Valley. Doncaster and Tyneside should also cheer Labour supporters. If Labour win in the West Midlands and the West of England, they will have a the bare bones of a good story to tell.  

In 1990, Tory chairman Ken Baker cherry picked council elections and turned them into a news triumph for his party. Six months later, Mrs Thatcher was ousted and the Conservatives won the next election.

It is not going to be that simple for Labour. It is one thing for Corbyn to publicly pretend that reality does not exist. It is quite another for Labour members.

More about the author

About the author

Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).

A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.

Follow Graham on Twitter.

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