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Corbyn's Camp Hate Michael Foot Comparisons, But May's Elections Could Bring Back Memories of 1982

29/02/2016 18:21 GMT | Updated 01/03/2017 10:12 GMT

For friends of Jeremy Corbyn, it's the laziest criticism you can level at the Labour leader: that he's 'the new Michael Foot'.

They loathe the way Tories - and even some Labour 'moderates' - roll out the 'scruffy at the Cenotaph' charge sheet. The focus on Corbyn's lack of enthusiasm for the national anthem mirrors Foot's "donkey jacket" moment back in 1981, they say (I once interviewed Foot's wife Jill Craigie, who had bought his new winter coat, and she pointed out the Queen Mother had actually praised him on wearing a sensible smart item, but that's by the by).

As for all those polls suggesting Corbyn has even worse personal ratings than Foot, at the same point in his own leadership, his supporters tend to blame the media for polluting voters' brains with a relentless diet of negativity.

Some on the Left also point out that Foot was nowhere near as Left as they wanted him to be, citing his attacks on Militant and his bid to stop Tony Benn from running for Deputy Leader.

Benn himself was not happy at the way Foot supported Margaret Thatcher's decision to send a taskforce to the Falklands, describing the Leader of the Opposition's Commons congratulations on the military victory in 1982 as "odious and excessive".

And yet, it may well be 1982 and the Falklands that are again cited this May when Labour's English council election results slowly emerge through the night.

For Corbyn's very first national test at the ballot box could see something not seen since those days of Goose Green, the Belgrano and Port Stanley: Labour failing to make gains in council seats.

Yes, 1982 was the last time that an official Opposition failed to score a net increase in English town hall seat numbers. But with crunch polls due in May, a new polling analysis shows Mr Corbyn is facing a stiff test to hold onto Labour seats against the Conservatives in key marginals in the West Midlands, where the party risks losing control of Cannock, Redditch and Dudley. If Labour loses its sole seat on Solihull Council, it will have no councillors at all for the first time in years in a Metropolitan borough.

And in the south, Labour could be left in charge of just one town hall south of the entire M4 corridor if it loses its grip on Southampton, Crawley and Exeter (something that really would mean it was a bad night for Corbyn). That would leave just Hastings as the island of Labour council control in the entire south of England.

In most of these key seats in the South and West Midlands are in areas that Labour simply has to win Westminster seats to have a hope of winning a general election. And from Southampton to Crawley, from Dudley to Cannock, it is marginal wards, with a mix of low-income home-owners and 'strivers', that will be the real test. 'Moderate' Labour MPs say Corbyn is going down like a lead balloon among these voters on things like defence and patriotism. Corbyn supporters say working class voters like his clearer anti-cuts message.

One recent study by local elections experts Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher showed that Labour could lose upto 200 of the 1,200 English council seats it is defending this year.

Allies of Jeremy Corbyn counter that the last time this May's council seats were last contested, in 2012, the party had a very good year of gains under Ed Miliband. That performance, with 800 gains for Labour, makes it difficult to expect any comparative advances in 2016, the argument goes.

Yet a look at the historic pattern of local elections shows that no Opposition has failed to make gains in council seats since Mr Foot's 1982 performance. Even during the Tories' darkest days under William Hague, straight after a Labour landslide, his party had a net increase in councillors. You have to go right back to 1973 for the last time the failure occurred.

Robert Hayward, the political analyst who last January was among the few to point out that national opinion polls were underestimating the Tory vote significantly, is blunt. "In every local election since 1973 - apart from in general election years and in 1982 - Oppositions are expected to gain seats. It would be a bad result for Labour if they do not gain seats in 2016," he says. Hayward is now a Tory peer, but his analysis is respected by many pollsters.

On what will be a difficult night indeed, the May elections could also see Labour lose its majority control of the Welsh Assembly and all its constituency seats in the Scottish Parliament with an even lower vote share than in the 2015 general election.

Supporters of Corbyn are hoping to gain some better news with Sadiq Khan beating Zac Goldsmith in the London Mayoral election, not least as the party once again outperformed the Tories at the 2015 general election in the capital by 300,000 votes. The white working class vote, which turned out for Boris Johnson in key areas like Croydon, Barnet and Harrow, is not expected to turn out for Goldsmith.

But in the spin wars, even this may not work in Corbyn's favour. The English local election results will be due in the early hours of Friday, with Scotland and Wales to follow by 6am and 10am. The London result will be last, with a verdict likely late on Friday night. By then, the Falklands comparison may be the only story in town.