1. SNEAK PEAK?
As he staged a victory lap in Plymouth this morning, Jeremy Corbyn was asked if the wider local election results showed that the country had now ‘reached peak Corbyn’? “No, no,” he replied. “There’s much more to come and it’s going to get even better…winning Plymouth is a sign Labour is back in this part of Britain. Labour is back to gain parliamentary seats”. Yet given that Plymouth was the only council the party took from the Tories, gaining Parliamentary seats looks far from certain on the basis of last night.
As the country woke up today, it was worth remembering that local election results are a patchwork quilt, not a uniform duvet. Unlike a general election, voters can also often mix-and-match their ballot papers, so it can be notoriously difficult to read wider lessons. Yet with that health warning notwithstanding, the story of 2018 seems to confirm that of 2017: following the collapse of UKIP and the Brexit vote, Labour is doing well in the big cities, the Tories are doing well in small towns and suburbs, but neither is strong enough to win a Parliamentary majority. We have a long way to go, but was last night a sneak peek of 2022?
Conservative and Labour MPs alike are also asking themselves that question: have we reached ‘Peak Corbyn’? Despite the mass of activism and canvassing, the party failed to win its key targets like Barnet and Swindon (visited repeatedly by Corbyn), went backwards in Nuneaton, Walsall, Derby and Hillingdon - and only managed to dislodge the Tories in Trafford thanks to a stunning win by the Greens in Altrincham.
One battle Labour lost terribly was the game of expectations management. Even suggesting it could win Westminster or Wandsworth was ill-advised. In 1990, Tory chairman Ken Baker famously spun that the party retaining the two flagships was a triumph, despite losing lots of other councils at the height of poll tax anger. In 2018, over-eager Labour activists did the Tories’ spin work for them in touting the possibility of upsets in London. (The expectation of victory, however, was genuine in Barnet, but see below).
That PR failure may mask the wider, steady erosion of Conservative support in other areas like Ealing and Redbridge. We could still see the Tories emerge with their lowest ever number of councillors in the capital since the early 1970s. More boroughs may have zero Conservative representation, and in other areas they may be reduced to a mere rump. Hillingdon aside (where Boris Johnson has his seat and Labour failed to wipe the smile off his face), their long-term demise in the capital may be further confirmed.
There were reasons to be cheerful for Corbyn in pockets of the country outside London. In Swindon, Labour’s increased share of the vote suggests the two Tory MPs could be in trouble, even though the council didn’t change hands. In Portsmouth too its vote share went up. The party even won the normally solid Tory ward of Ramsbottom in Bury. Yet there was little evidence of a wider straight switch of Tory to Labour votes. As I write, the Tories are - incredibly - down by just one seat overall. Labour have made just 30-odd gains, not much more than the Lib Dems. In normal years, Oppositions win hundreds of extra seats mid-term.
Corbyn showed last year that he can bounce back from a set of dire local election results to use a national campaign to surprise people. But Labour’s momentum (with a capital ‘M’ and a lower case one) looks stalled after last night. Eight years into a Tory-led government, perhaps the biggest lesson is that Labour cannot rely just on inertia and steady disillusion with the incumbents to win power. To get a sustainable majority, an Opposition needs to actively win, not just bank on a Government passively losing. Last night confirmed the status quo in much of England. And the status quo is no victory for Labour.
2. FOR THE MANY NOT THE JEWS
The whole narrative of these results would have looked better for Labour if it had secured its key number one London target of Barnet. At the party’s HQ - where general secretary Jennie Formby and Corbyn’s chief of staff Karie Murphy sported identical ‘Unite’ t-shirts as they stayed up all night - the mood was far from jubilant. And things got worse just after 6am, when the Tory shock in the Jewish ward of West Hendon was confirmed.
In Barnet, Labour genuinely felt it could sneak a win. But instead, the Tories took it back from no overall control and local Labour politicians are in no doubt that the anti-semitism row was to blame for the big drop in votes in Jewish areas. The key was losing West Hendon, which the party has held for 40 years. And this was not just a London issue. In Kersal in Salford, the most Jewish ward in the UK, Labour lost to the Tories after record surge. In Bury too there was a similar pattern
Barnet. Labour group leader Barry Rawlings (who blogged last month for us that Corbyn had a ‘blind spot’ on anti-semitism) told the Ham&High newspaper: “We tried hard in Hale and that was one of those wards with a large Jewish population so I think it just confirms that antisemitism played a part.” Former Hendon MP and local London Assembly member Andrew Dismore added: “There is no doubt #antisemitism has had an effect”. The mood of anger was best summed up by Adam Langleben, who lost his West Hendon seat. He tweeted: “It was the greatest honour of my life to serve West Hendon. We must NEVER have another election like this. No community group should have their vote dictated by their safety. That should shame us.”
Last night, Shadow Equalities Minister Dawn Butler outraged centrists by blaming former staffers. “Jeremy Corbyn ordered a report almost immediately and then that report wasn’t implemented,” she told the BBC. “It’s not a failure of the leadership, it’s a failure of the general secretary for not implementing it.” Shadow Health Secretary Jon Ashworth hit back: “It’s nothing to do with Iain McNicol, it’s a nonsense.” This row will play out in coming days for sure.
3. BREXIT DELAY EFFECT
The country certainly reached ‘Peak UKIP’ the last time these seats were fought in 2014 (don’t forget that Farage’s party won the Euro elections on the same day). Labour’s revival in the snap general election last year was in part due to winning back its core voters who had drifted to UKIP, a factor that few had forecast. But last night it looked like the Tories who most benefited. In Basildon and Dudley, Tory success was down to UKIP’s demise. In Derby, a UKIP candidate managed to defeat the Labour leader.
The Tories winning back their own supporters from UKIP is unsurprising. The more interesting question is whether Labour can repeat what it did last year, and win back its own people who flirted with the Kippers. In Portsmouth, Labour won 4 of the 6 UKIP seats and increased its vote share. In Thurrock, it won three out of five UKIP seats. However, Tory gains in Dudley and Walsall suggest UKIP was a gateway drug towards voting blue. If that’s repeated later in Great Yarmouth, Labour will be worried. Note too that the Kipper factor was at play in Labour’s Barnet failure. In the key Jewish ward of West Hendon, Labour’s vote stayed the same, but the Tory vote went up by 10% and was matched almost exactly by a 10% drop in UKIP support (they didn’t stand this time).
One consequence of last night’s results is that Tory Remainer MPs may now think that the threat of a Corbyn general election victory is less likely – and so they can cause more trouble on Brexit without that threat being held over them. As I’ve said often, time is not on the PM’s side on this. In the Sun, Tom Newton Dunn reveals May is holding back key Customs and Trade bills until the autumn, amid fears she lacks the numbers. And the Telegraph splashes on a leaked briefing to Cabinet ministers that the UK may have to stay in the customs union until 2023 because its complex customs solutions won’t be ready in time for the 2020 deadline previously set. DD told MPs yesterday his resignation over the issue was ‘not imminent’. Some were unsure if he was joking.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Watch Claire Perry and John McDonnell’s BBC elections programme spat in the early hours of the morning.
4. THE CABLE GUY
The Lib Dems certainly didn’t talk up their chances before yesterday (although that’s in part because they were worried by mixed reports from their activists). But the party is delighted at its stunning success in Richmond, where it took 24 seats and the Tories lost 28 seats. Zac Goldsmith cut a lonely figure when I spotted him canvassing on his own last night in north Kingston. And if the Lib Dems take that borough too (results due this afternoon), the writing is on the wall for Goldsmith’s chances in Richmond Park (which covers both Richmond and Kingston) at the 2022 election. Few expect him to stand again, and maybe last night sealed that.
Vince Cable, whose own seat is in Richmond, emerges more secure in his leadership. The Libs fended off a strong challenge from the Tories in Sutton. In Hull too, the Lib Dems made seven gains from Labour. The party will be hoping to make progress in Maidstone later, where it is neck and neck with the Tories. It will also aim to on to South Lakeland, Tim Farron’s backyard which was visited by Theresa May only this week.
5. ROD FOR HIS BACK
Speaker John Bercow was put under yet more pressure yesterday with PoliticsHome’s exclusive interview with former Black Rod. David Leakey said that Bercow was frequently prone to ‘red mists’ of anger and had witnessed him being “bullying and unreasonable”. He added that Bercow’s conduct does not “match up to the standard” he would expect from a public servant. As we discuss in this week’s podcast, the Speaker’s allies often depict this as a class issue, suggesting the rows are down to his clashes with ‘posh toff men in tights’. Bang on cue, a spokesman for Bercow said last night: “John Bercow and David Leakey are two very different people with very different backgrounds, perspectives and ideas.”
The Times splashes on the fact that Bercow is determined to “keep buggering on”, and it’s true that there are very few avenues to get rid of him if he doesn’t want to step aside voluntarily. What may further boost his support on the Labour benches is his opposition to inviting Donald Trump to speak in Parliament. Last night his Lords counterpart, Lord Fowler, kept open the option, saying said no decision had been made. He pointed out decisions on addresses in the Lords’ Royal Gallery were for him and Black Rod to determine [ie not Bercow]. “The United States is a long-standing ally and friend of the United Kingdom,” he added.
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