Thursday 3 May 2018 was the first time voters across England went to the polls since the dramatic 2017 General Election. The Local Elections were taken seriously by our two main political parties - Labour and the Conservatives - as they saw it as an opportunity to test the public's mood. Although the green benches in the House of Commons were out of the equation in this election, seats on about 150 councils were up for grabs.
As we approached polling day, the parties’ spin machines went into overdrive. Government and Opposition Ministers clashed in Parliament over a range of issues they thought mattered locally to people: housing, jobs, potholes, bins, street lights - and they expected the UK’s relentless 24-hour news media would give their respective party a positive showing.
After Theresa May wasn’t handed the huge Parliamentary majority the Tories were hoping for last June, the party was unsurprisingly hesitant in predicting its own performance ahead of the Local Elections. Labour campaign chiefs, however, were confident of turning true blue councils such as Westminster and Wandsworth red by capitalising on the popularity of Jeremy Corbyn and his electoral performance in the General Election. But picking local councillors is very different to choosing the next UK Government - and most voters understand that. Not only are there a number of varying factors at play in a Local Election, turnout is significantly lower as people don’t actually think voting for representatives in the Town Hall is that important.
Labour gained more than 70 council seats but ended up with no change to the numbers of councils they’re in charge of. The party won back Plymouth and became the largest party in Trafford. The Tories now control Barnet and Redditch and profited from a collapse in UKIP's vote to take Basildon and Peterborough.
Yet the results didn’t throw up that many surprises. Nationally we are at a stalemate. It would appear voters haven’t really changed their minds since the last national poll took place. And that’s where the art of spin kicks in. During the early hours of Friday 4 May, Conservative Central Office ordered its MPs to appear on the BBC and Sky’s election programmes to talk down Labour’s performance and suggest that the results showed we had ‘peaked Corbyn’. Labour should have hit back and made the Tories feel uncomfortable on the policy priorities which resonate with people, such as their callous attitude to Local Government funding which is putting councils on the brink and damaging vital frontline services residents rely on. In an attempt to shape the narrative, I thought it was a real coup for the press office to put up Dawn Butler to go head to head with Ministers and remind TV viewers about the Windrush scandal and the devastating impact the Government’s hostile environment has had on many of our communities.
With the help of respected psephologist Professor John Curtice, we know that if the overall results were translated into a Parliamentary poll Labour would end up as the largest party. It still wouldn’t have enough support to command an overall majority which would make life tricky in the Commons.
Labour and the Tories will now remain on a campaign footing and insist they have what it takes to convince people they can put their trust in them to deliver change. But the battle to win the spin war will wage on regardless - and both parties will certainly want to reign supreme on that front.