Labour's Moving in the Right Direction

11/05/2016 08:32 | Updated 11 May 2016

Before all the election results were in, politicians and pundits were touring the TV studios giving their verdicts on Labour's performance in Thursday's elections. Now the final results are actually in, we're in a better position to analyse them objectively.

There were many great highlights amongst other disappointing results and we have to accept there is no 'quick and easy fix' following our second General Election defeat last year.

Twelve months on from the last General Election, where we were 7% behind the Conservatives, we're now 1% ahead. We've not yet done enough to guarantee victory in 2020, but I believe Labour is moving in the right direction.

Our opposition to the Conservative agenda has exposed how unfair it is, contributing to their decline in support and giving us a narrow lead across the UK - even taking into account the deeply difficult situation Labour faces in Scotland.

Firstly, the results. In the English council elections Labour did better than many election experts predicted. Jon Trickett set us the target of closing the gap with the Conservatives from 2015, but predictions being made with just days to go, comparing to the 2012 result, argued we would remain behind the Conservatives and lose 150 seats. A net loss of 18 council seats represents sad news for hardworking Labour councillors, activists and communities - but to retain power in areas of the South like Crawley and Southampton and make gains in Bristol, Cambridge, Exeter, Norwich and Swindon were real steps forward.

Labour's victory in the four Mayoral elections included two huge swings to Labour in London and Bristol. In London, Sadiq Khan's fantastic victory demonstrated an effective campaign in the face of a disgraceful and alienating Conservative campaign and Jeremy Corbyn's popularity in London contributed to that win, confirming that London is a Labour city. Marvin Rees' victory in Bristol was all the more sweet coming back from his defeat back in 2012.

But clearly we have much more to do to convince voters - a challenge we share with social democratic parties across Europe. A number of sister parties have been in almost existential crisis in recent years and the last two General Election results show that Labour, of course, is not immune from this trend.

But are we in crisis? We cannot ignore the fact that Labour lost five million votes between 1997 and 2010. Ed Miliband reversed our decline in 2015. But there is much more to do.

We need to understand why we lost those votes before we collectively rebuild that coalition and Jeremy Corbyn and his ideas can deliver on both questions.

The results in Scotland were poor and need to be analysed separately from the results across the rest of the UK. The SNP overtook Labour in 2007, took a majority in 2011, and wiped us out in the Westminster election just last year. It was not an 'overnight sensation' but an electoral disaster 20 years in the making. Long-term factors crystallised at the 2015 General Election to deliver the wipe-out of so many excellent Labour MPs. Alastair Campbell was right when, on Peston on Sunday, he said "Labour took Scotland for granted for a long, long time". In the New Labour years, all too often I heard people complacently say that voters in Scotland and in other Labour heartlands had 'nowhere else to go' and that 'swing voters' in the South of England should be our sole electoral preoccupation. These colleagues were proven tragically wrong. The SNP provided voters with somewhere else to go. Labour Party membership in Scotland reduced dramatically, the roots of the Scottish Labour tree were chipped away at over many years meaning that when the independence storm came, Labour couldn't weather it and the tree was toppled.

The unprecedented electoral disaster in 2015 that was so long in the making was never going to be turned around overnight. That's not how history works. The causes of - and cures for - Labour's position in Scotland are of course multi-faceted and complex and can only be sorted by people plugged in to the reality on the ground in Scotland. But one thing's for sure, people in England who will attempt to persuade the Scottish Leadership that their next move should be to pitch to the right of the SNP are sadly mistaken.

And we must also be wary of Ukip, who have become the main electoral opposition in many traditionally safe Labour seats. Ukip's position in these seats will only be strengthened if Labour leads an 'establishment' remain campaign in the EU referendum. Jeremy Corbyn is correct to make clear that the European Union is far from perfect and that we need major change so that we have a more democratic Europe that works in the interests of ordinary people.

Falling support for Labour from 1997 left the map of southern England blue, but the hollowing out of support took place across the country - including in our heartlands. That's why we should celebrate the victories in Thursday's two parliamentary contests in Sheffield and in Ogmore. Whilst some may say that electoral advances in Labour-held areas are irrelevant, I disagree. The results indicate we are reconnecting.

So how does Labour under build on these initial results?

Firstly, we need the Parliamentary Labour Party united in supporting Jeremy Corbyn's advocacy of an alternative for Government. Divisions amongst Labour MPs are over-emphasised by journalists eager for headlines, meaning that indulgent media appearances demoralise members and supporters. That's not fair on Labour activists, Labour voters or our communities.

Secondly, we need to turn our fire on the Conservatives. We need to continue to expose the contradictions in their ill-thought out policies and force more reversals and u-turns, as we have seen in recent weeks on Personal Independence Payments and on forced academisation. At the same we must build the enthusing, mobilising policy pledges that will build our future electoral coalition around a new economic strategy of public investment, enterprise and fair taxation. We have work to do - let's get on with it.

Richard Burgon is the Labour MP for East Leeds and Shadow City Minister