Labour clearly lost the expectations game in last Thursday’s local elections – setting expectations too high to be reached, so much so that Andrew Gywne, Labour’s Shadow Communities Secretary, rapidly tried to downplay predictions over the last few weeks. Labour was very open about its targets and how ambitious they were. Notable London targets included Wandsworth, a council that had been Conservative controlled since 1978 alongside Barnet, Kensington & Chelsea and Westminster, all of which had never had a Labour council since their foundation in 1964.
Saying that, it is important to remember that the Conservatives did not win this election. Unlike previous local elections, under Corbyn they lost more seats than they gained. Celebrating not collapsing across the country is a strange ‘victory slogan’ for the Tories. If they don’t face up to the fact that Labour has turned around its local election prospects, which due to lower turnout and enthusiasm are skewed towards the Tories, next year’s locals could take them by surprise.
Much of the political commentary surrounding these local elections has been constantly referencing the idea of the ‘electoral cycle’ – the idea that parties gain significant numbers of seats in opposition before losing large numbers of these when they enter into Government. To this extent, the commentariat are critical of Labour’s apparent lack of significant gains at these elections – but this theory is flawed. Politics is still in flux.
The time when opposition leaders could confidently walk into local elections looking to pick up several hundred council seats is long gone. The electorate are still coming to terms with the result and implications of EU Referendum as well as last year’s General Election, which have both resulted in significant realignment in British politics, so much so that it is hard to argue anymore that there is a common politics across the UK.
Once upon a time one could have said: ‘what do new towns, the leafy outer suburbs of London and much of the Midlands have in common?’These were the traditional ‘bellweather’ areas of British politics – reflecting its ebbs and flows. Such comparisons are now hard to make – with the new ‘political tribes’ moulded by the Referendum splitting such areas right down the middle. This helps to explain how the Tories made significant gains from UKIP in areas like Derby, Dudley, Peterborough and Nuneaton and why Labour made gains in ‘Remain areas’ like London but really struggled in the Midlands. Labour clearly gained less from the recent realignment in British politics and this could be cause for worry, however this can in part be explained by having to compete with the Lib Dems and Greens for votes amongst ‘Remainers’.
Such results make these elections fascinating but don’t fit a quick headline. Both sides need to learn the lessons of these elections as they are not a clear win for either party. As for the future of British politics, these elections have not made it any easier to predict.