Note on the local elections

The problem with drawing sweeping conclusions from the local election results is obvious. Only a third of seats were contested, a disproportionate number of them Conservative held.  No London seats were contested as far as I know. And a fairly small minority of voters participates in such elections anyway, many of them voting in ways that they would not in a general election. This point would have been moot in 2015, when these elections overlapped with the general election, and thus achieved a comparable turnout. But the turnout appears to be significantly lower this time.

That doesn't stop anyone else from insta-theorising, of course. Sunday pundits, Twitter sages: where would we be without their wisdom? So, let me try my own sweeping conclusions. First, Brexit may be a bad issue for Labour, inasmuch as it is structurally unable to take a hard position, but it's obviously way worse for the Conservatives. It's the difference between coping, and existential crisis. Second, the idea that the votes that went to the Remain parties could have been Labour's if only it had spent the last few years proselytising for a Hard Remain position, isn't going to fly. Third, there is very little incentive for Labour to accept a deal with the Tories unless it is almost identical with Labour's current position, and that probably means there won't be one.

The Remain parties did do far better than I would have expected. The Liberal Democrats adding over 700 seats to their total can be attributed in part to two mass protests against Brexit. No doubt. Likewise, while the Greens may have benefited from Extinction Rebellion driving climate change up the agenda, it seems likely that some of their vote derived from their consistent Remain position. But for those who think most of these gains could have been Labour's if only they had been passionately Remain, look at how these seats were gained. 

The Tories, of course, were decimated, losing over 1,300 seats. Labour's relatively small net loss of 82 seats is poor, but it doesn't compare to this inferno, "pox-on-both-your-houses" headlines notwithstanding. So where did the almost 900 additional seats picked up by the Greens and the Liberal Democrats come from? The majority of them, even making room for the shuffling of votes as Labour picked up council seats in the south and lost them in the north, had to come from the Conservatives. When we look at the figures for councils gained by the Liberal Democrats, that is borne out: all were either from Conservative control, or No Overall Control. The Tory vote is melting down in all directions, May's attempt to triangulate the 'Hard Brexit' crowd while maintaining the party's traditional alliance with big capital having catastrophically failed.

Now look at Labour's losses. Labour gained seats in the South and East. It lost more across the North and the East Midlands. While some of those losses were to the Greens and the Liberal Democrats, a big challenge was mounted by 'independents'. In Mansfield, Labour was beaten by a small business-led coalition which leans right. In Ashfield, the independents were also the main beneficiaries, running an anti-Labour campaign that emphasised local issues. In Bolton West, which had a strong Leave vote, both the Liberals and the independents gained. Much of this reflects the generic anti-party, anti-politician sentiment that May tried to channel with her speech from the bunker, rather than a specific position on Brexit. But it is also a result of Labour's long-term erosion in these areas.

Based on these numbers, one has to ask what Labour would have to do to have gained the seats that the Remain parties picked up. Most of these Tory-Liberal defections would probably not vote for a party to the left of Vince Cable. They certainly wouldn't vote for a party led by Jeremy Corbyn. For Labour to assemble a Hard Remain electoral coalition on this basis, it would have to assemble an electoral coalition more centre-right, more Southern, more affluent and less working-class. Not because workers are more pro-Brexit as some mistakenly assume, but because Labour's agenda would have to be carefully tailored to placate the most wary and politically remote parts of the coalition. Its leadership would have to veer back to the centre-right, leaving more left-wing voters to abstain or defect. In the improbable event that this were to happen, it is hard to imagine anything more likely to depress turnout and hand seats to Farage and his ilk.

Finally, as regards the prospects for a deal after these results. May is proposing a 'temporary' customs union. Based on the noises from her backbenchers, it is unlikely that she could even deliver the votes for it. John McDonnell is quite right to say that negotiating with May at this point is like dealing with a firm that is going bust. If she turns over the assets and the keys, that would be interesting. But otherwise, any offer from her is of dwindling real value.

Tier Benefits
Recent Posts