Local elections: Who really won?

By Dan Egglestone

The local elections have come and gone, but much has been made in the media about one central question: who exactly won? Last year saw a round of county council elections that were an obvious success for the Conservatives. Things were looking bleak for Labour who received a rounded battering yet won the expectation management game, reassuring its core support by saying: ‘we did better than expected’. How the tables have turned.

Since then, Labour knocked the Tories in touch a little by cutting them out of a majority and forcing an alliance between the Conservatives and the DUP. Labour called victory and the Tories informed them that, whilst the ruling party had lost where it should have won, it still formed the government and took the most seats; it’s democracy stupid. Now the reverse has seemingly happened. Fearing the backlash of 8 years in government the Conservatives were playing the expectation management game by worrying that they would lose safe councils then saying: ‘we did better than expected’.

Sir John Curtice, speaking on the BBC, called local elections ‘home-games’ for the opposition. Except Labour didn’t actually win. Sure, they won in London, but, as they keep reminding us, they’re the party of the working class. The 32 London boroughs, which all elected their councils on Thursday, have a combined population of roughly 8.7 million whilst the population of England is roughly 55.2 million. It’s a frightening proportion, but a country-mile from a majority, so it’s surprising to the regular voter living outside the London bubble that Labour make such a song and dance out of the capital.

In London Labour gained over 60 seats there whilst the Tories lost over 80, with Labour taking seats in both Wandsworth and Westminster from the Conservatives (although we should remember that the Tories kept both councils). Elsewhere, in areas of No Overall Control (NOC) Labour gained enough seats to form majorities. We also can’t forget the Lib Dems taking both Richmond and Kingston-upon-Thames from the Conservatives, and holding Sutton going from one to three councils, all in affluent remain areas of south-west London. However, in Barnet, now the most populous borough, Labour should have walked it. Instead, it swung from NOC to Conservative, owing to Barnet’s Jewish population, which, like in many parts of London, contained traditional Labour voters who went Conservative or didn’t vote because of Labour’s anti-Semitism disease. Even so, Labour still took more seats, and the Tories still suffered losses.

But, you may be surprised to hear that London isn’t the only part of England. The Lib Dems had a shaky resurgence, sweeping the Conservatives away in South Cambridgeshire, but losing seats to the Conservatives in South Lakeland. Labour did make gains, they took the council in Plymouth and forced Trafford from Conservative to NOC. But they didn’t have the best night beyond that. In Sunderland, Labour lost 4 seats, and this followed in several northern councils, incremental Conservative gains in what should be Labour strongholds. The Tories also gained councils from NOC in Basildon and Peterborough, both thanks to the total collapse of UKIP. An entirely mixed result for all parties besides.

A lot of people looking at these statistics would assume it is obvious that Labour won. Yet in Britain, the Conservatives hold 9,081 seats while Labour hold second with 6,470. Labour threw everything they had at Tory safe councils in London and failed, and the Tories took from Labour in the wake of anti-Semitism. Labour shored up and increased support in London, whilst getting uneven results in the north, reinforcing what many have known for a while: that Labour represents cosmopolitan youths more than the working class. So there has been a shift, and Labour has mitigated the blow by not completely losing.

Labour should be winning. Even more than that: they should be walking these elections. In 1996 Labour had a total of 10,929 and the sitting Tory government fell to 4,276. From that point on, the new Labour government lost councillors to the Conservatives in opposition. So too does it stand historically that no opposition has formed a government without first getting a majority in local councils, and Labour are still a long way off. The Tories should have been slaughtered on Thursday but instead what we got was a mixed bag: a Labour party that, even after 8 years in opposition, still can’t excite the electorate. It’s clear that the Tories are equally lukewarm, but a sitting government can afford to be lukewarm if it means that, eight years on, it’s still a local majority.

If this was a ‘home-game’, it was a very hollow draw. But historical precedent suggests otherwise: Labour lost bad, another opportunity thrown away. Unless Labour start appealing to real people again, they won’t be in Number 10 come 2022.

Photograph: Mark Fowler via Flickr

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