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What do the local election results tell us about Labour's progress?

Labour has made a modest advance on 2014 results that were good enough for many to predict a Labour victory at the following year’s general election and there was some Tory defensive consolidation, often out of the collapse of Ukip.

The local government election results declared by midday today revealed a political map of England little changed over the last 10 months since Labour’s surge at the general election.

That picture is of a deep two-party polarisation, with Labour strengthening in the big cities and making some inroads elsewhere, but the Tories stubbornly holding on in places with an anti-Labour rather than pro-government message in these lower turnout elections.

That is not the impression you would get from concerted efforts by establishment figures — Tory and the narrow cohort of bitterly anti-Corbyn Labour MPs — to spin what are incremental Labour gains as some kind of shattering defeat.

Labour gained Plymouth council, for example. The prize for possibly the most ludicrous spin to account for a Tory defeat came from its MP Jonny Mercer. He claimed it was down to government defence cuts. That was reported with a straight face by commentators who also say that Labour is losing votes because Jeremy Corbyn is seen as “soft on defence and national security.”

Labour’s advance in Trafford, leaving the Tories with no council in the Greater Manchester area, was largely discounted as were other gains, including in areas Labour has not won seats for 20 years or longer.

The biggest inversion of reality is over Labour’s performance in London. It gained seats, including in outer London boroughs, and probably advanced its overall share of the vote, which was already very high. It was nearly 55 percent at the general election.

Yet the fact that Labour “did not take” flagship Tory councils such as Westminster, Wandsworth and Kensington & Chelsea was held up as some mark of failure.

Wandsworth council has been Tory since 1978 — remaining so at landslides in 1997 and following. Kensington & Chelsea has been Tory since it was created in 1964, and more than half of it is home to some of the richest people in Europe.

The remarkable thing is not that the Tories held them but the advances that Labour made. It gained seats in the more working class wards of Wandsworth. In others, Tory councillors held on by their fingertips to the extent that just a few hundred more votes going to Labour could have tipped the council.

In Westminster, where the Tory leader claimed radical left politics had been decisively rejected at the polls, the estimated shares of votes cast were Conservative 42.8 per cent (up 1.1 points) and Labour 41.1 per cent (up 7.6 points). Labour gained just three councillors to make 19 against the Tories’ 41.

Labour also advanced in votes in Kensington & Chelsea and gained a seat.

None of that is defeat, but it is true that the Tories held on there and also in Barnet in north London. The central reason is class.

A Labour activist touched on it at the Kensington & Chelsea count, telling journalists that, in the extremely wealthy south of the borough, “people didn’t care about the Grenfell fire as they do” in the poor and multicultural northern third.

You don’t say? When Labour says “for the many, not the few” there is a considerable minority of the better off middle classes and higher who recognise themselves as among “the few” who will not gain via policies redistributing to the many.

In places such as Wandsworth they might have voted heavily Remain at the referendum, but in class terms they feel closer to the Tories, despite Brexit, than they do to left-led Labour.

And it appears that the Tories were successful in getting them out to vote in quite high numbers to meet the Labour challenge. Turnout at the local elections was, as is typical, much lower than at a general election. A Tory defensive strategy focused heavily on getting its better off supporters out, who tend at local elections to have a higher turnout anyway.

That was certainly the case in Barnet, where there were very high turnouts in the better off wards. It is true that in some of those there is also a high Jewish population, but they are also more highly middle class and pro-Tory than the national average of Jewish voters.

The furore about “Labour anti-semitism” doubtless had an impact. How could it not? It is not only that it has been weaponised by the Tories. It has been adopted for two years by a hardcore of the Labour right to attack the left and their own party.

And that includes by Labour councillors in Barnet — all but two of whom backed rivals to Corbyn in the leadership elections. Far from helping to deal with the issue, they’ve taken up the claims emanating from the Tories.

So the leader of the Labour group Barry Rawlings says it all should have been dealt with two years ago, but it was the Labour general secretary supported by the right over those two years who failed to do so or to implement the comprehensive recommendations of the Chakrabarti report dealing with the matter.

Unsurprisingly, that has not stopped anti-Corbyn elements of the Labour Party, in collaboration with the Tories, trying to use the result not to seek the implementation of that report but to reheat the political assault.

From the same quarters comes a ludicrous attack on the enthusiastic and often younger activists mobilised by the Momentum group and others to campaign in places such as Wandsworth and Westminster.

Their excitement and effort in fighting to win in Tory strongholds is meant now to count against them, despite gains being made there and also in London and net across the country.

If taken seriously, that would be a recipe for not challenging the Tories and just trying to hold on in Labour areas — exactly the opposite of what the right-wing elements of the Labour Party say needs to be done.

There are indeed things that need to be done by the labour movement to break the Tory-DUP government off the back of these election results, but they are the contrary to what is advocated by those who have tried to undermine the Corbyn leadership from day one of it being elected by the majority of a rising party membership.

The claim that Labour should move further down the road of the Lib Dem position of trying to overturn the outcome of the referendum is not supported by the facts. Labour has not “lost Remain” votes through its stance.

Claims of a Lib Dem revival are fanciful. They gained about 40 seats, but after losing 300 in 2014 when the same councils were up for election. There was no surge for the Lib Dems from Labour in London, despite the city voting Remain in 2016.

Richmond council, gained by the Lib Dems, is exceptional. The Greens actually lost share of vote on average where they stood. They gained a few seats, but often out of an electoral pact with the Lib Dems — most clearly in Richmond — not by taking “disaffected” Labour Remain voters.

Lib Dem gains in Sunderland and Hull were simply a slight restoration of their on and off role of being a protest vote against solidly Labour local politics and on a right wing basis with very low turnouts.

The collapse of the Ukip vote did largely benefit the Tories, as that is where most of the Ukip vote had come from four years ago, and it removed them as a vehicle for protest voting. But Labour too picked up former Ukip seats — in Basildon, for example.

A lurch towards a Blairite Remain position in the coming intense months of crisis for the Tories over Brexit will do nothing to help Labour. It would undermine the efforts to win over working-class support in the Midlands and parts of the north of England that was lost so heavily in the Blair and Brown years.

Continuing to recover that support remains a major issue. It is not helped by the antics of some Labour MPs daily attacking the party and also showing contempt for how people voted in the referendum.

It can’t be helped either by not just the implementation of Tory austerity by Labour councils, but often the failure of those councils to embrace even rhetorically the radical anti-austerity message of the front bench. In that gap between the message that moved people at the general election and a conventional local reality cynicism can spread.

But there is a bigger issue. Thanks to the political polarisation the Tories do continue to have considerable working-class support. It will not be broken by accommodation to right wing Tory themes, from immigration to defence. In fact, the Windrush scandal is evidence for pursing the opposite approach.

Electoral campaigning can, of course, make a difference and it clearly did in places yesterday. But that is not enough in itself either.

In the historic surge at the general election this time last year the campaign fronted by Corbyn felt very much like the kind of social movements that had fed into his leadership victory in the first place.

Yes, there was smart use of online communication, but it was deeper than that. The sense of doing politics differently was beyond doing canvassing differently.

And it appealed broadly, not only to younger and first time voters but to large numbers of working-class people in their forties and fifties and older who had given up voting at the previous three general elections.

The average age up to which people were more likely to vote Labour than Tory was about 49. And it rose during the election. The campaign over school cuts, appealing especially to parents, led to 750,000 people switching their vote.

It is in the stirring of people into campaigns and struggles against the Tory government — not only when there is an election — that enthusiasm is built, real gains for people won now and electoral support for the Tories broken among working class and some middle class people.

That’s not something that can be whistled up out of thin air, but it is the critical step the labour movement can and must deliver to advance upon yesterday’s result.

It is also the principal way to deal with the sabotage we must continue to expect from certain quarters.

It is not a generational thing. It is more than a canvassing thing every April. It is a class thing.

The Tories understand that, which is why they will not give up without a much bigger fight even than that mounted so far.


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