No Labour breakthrough in local elections

Image: Stuart Boreham (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

With Labour making only 22 gains in England, Starmer’s strategy is failing, says Peter Rowlands

These elections took place for all seats on councils in London, Scotland and Wales; for some seats, often one third of the total, on some, mainly urban councils in the rest of England; and for the Assembly in Northern Ireland. The Tories lost 485 seats – a heavy loss – but Labour only gained 108, mainly in Wales. The big winners were the Lib Dems, with 224, and the Greens, with 87 – increases of about 40% and 120% respectively. It should be noted, however, that the last time these elections were held was in 2017 in Wales and Scotland, when Labour did very badly compared to the Tories (although it improved hugely in the later general election of that year), and in 2018 in England, when Labour did about as well as the Tories. With Labour ahead in the polls, the results in Wales (and to a lesser extent Scotland) were set to be much better proportionally than in England; and so they proved to be.   

In England, Labour gained only 22 seats. They were particularly bad in the north, where Labour was down by three points and struggled to take seats in the ‘Red Wall’ areas. In London, Labour maintained its 2018 vote, but the success in winning three target councils from the Tories (Barnet, Westminster and Wandsworth) was offset by losing three – Harrow to the Tories, Croydon to a Tory mayor and NOC, and Tower Hamlets to an independent group, Aspire. Labour only did better in some seats in the south of England, winning Southampton, Crawley and Worthing. The Lib Dems and the Greens were both very successful.

In Scotland, Labour won 20 seats and took control of one council (West Dumbarton). They overtook the Tories, who lost seats heavily, but they didn’t do as well proportionally as the Lib Dems or the Greens, and not much better than the SNP. Labour’s results were much better in Scotland than in England, partly due to the last election having been in 2017, as in Wales; but they do not hold out much of a prospect for a serious revival of Labour in Scotland. 

In Northern Ireland, the elections were for the Assembly (those for local government are next year). Sinn Féin won the highest vote for the first time, precipitating the ongoing political crisis over the protocol.

The gains in Wales were the best for Labour in the UK, largely because of their dismal performance when these seats were last contested in 2017. They should arguably have been better. Labour won 66 seats in Wales out of a total 108 in the UK; but in 2017, Labour lost 107 seats, so it only won back about 60% of those it lost. This is in part due to the continuation of splits and divisions in Labour groups and parties in various councils, causing the losses of Blaenau Gwent, Bridgend and Merthyr Tydfil in 2017, often to independents who had been Labour supporters or councillors. While Labour majorities were regained in Blaenau Gwent and Bridgend, Merthyr Tydfil remains divided. Labour has lost its majority in Neath Port Talbot, losing 13 seats, and the party should have taken Flintshire. Otherwise, the Tories lost 86 seats – more than the 80 they had gained in 2017 – and lost control of their one council, Monmouthshire.

The Lib Dems gained ten seats, and the Greens gained eight seats – their first in Wales – but neither party did as well proportionally as in England. Plaid had the most paradoxical outcome, actually losing six seats but gaining control of three more councils over the one they already had. Their councils are all in the Welsh-speaking areas, and their victories – coupled with their overall losses in south Wales – reflect the move to a more cultural and rural orientation under the new leadership, after its previous more left-wing and urban orientation.

These results were bad for Labour and expose Labour’s electoral strategy as a complete failure. The emphasis on winning back the ‘Red Wall’ through social conservatism, nationalism and militarism, and “making Brexit work”, has helped to cause a significant increase in support for the Lib Dems and the Greens – from Remainers over Labour’s abandonment of any European orientation, and from those on the left concerned at Labour’s drift to the right on policy and seemingly uncritical support for reckless Tory jingoism and unconditional support for NATO (which even the Pope has criticised!). People want a sensible discussion of these issues and some serious policies aimed at tackling the huge problems the country is faced with, but Labour is not providing either.

The results in Scotland, parts of southern England, and particularly Wales were better, but this mainly reflected a more favourable situation electorally, local leadership and orientation, and were despite, rather than because of, Labour’s main strategy.

John Curtice, the elections guru, gave the projected national share of the vote based on these elections as: Labour – 35%, Tory – 30%, and Lib Dem – 19%. As he pointed out, for Labour this is the same as in 2018, when Corbyn was leader. Despite the government’s complete disarray, with Johnson fighting for his political life, and little criticism of Labour from the media compared to that constantly levelled at Corbyn, to be only three points ahead of the 32% Labour gained in 2019 is pathetic. These elections show that Starmer has failed and his leadership is being increasingly criticised, by the right of the party as well as the left. But that’s another story.

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