Preliminary Squalls

James Butler · The Local Elections

Before the local elections last week, the Conservative Party had said that losing a thousand councillors would be a disaster. In the event, the collapse of the Tory vote was more than three hundred seats worse than that. The wipeout in Chelmsford left the Tory MP, Vicky Ford, in tears; at a gathering of Welsh Conservatives, the prime minister was greeted with active heckling, a rare choice for the Tory grassroots, who generally prefer to dissent in truculent silence. Andrew Mitchell, a former chief whip, was ‘surprised anyone was bothered to vote for us’. At the coming European elections, with the Brexit Party in contention, the faithful remnant may be yet further diminished.

Tory failure did not translate into Labour gains: the Greens and Liberal Democrats were the ones smiling the morning after, alongside a host of microparties and independent associations. Average turnout was around 30 per cent. It’s hard to make observations about national politics from local elections: Labour’s poor showing in the locals two years ago implied a 27 per cent share of the popular vote; in the general election a month later it got more than 40 per cent. The traditional claim is that local elections allow voters to register their discontent with the main parties without the risk of dislodging an administration or undermining its main challenger. The argument after these elections isn’t whether such a protest took place, but over its political interpretation, with both sides of the Brexit divide claiming that it endorses their preferred outcome.

John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, had hoped Labour would gain a few hundred seats; it ended up with a net loss of 63, and ceded control of six councils: a defeat of a different order of magnitude from the Conservatives’, though some of the losses – Hartlepool, Bolsover, Wirral – have symbolic weight. Sporadic good news for the party in target seats doesn’t make the search for explanations any easier. Most turn on two factors – base and Brexit – and neither offers much consolation. The Labour electoral base skews young, less advantaged and less securely housed, and is harder to turn out, especially without the high stakes of a national race. But one reason for Corbynism’s success has been its ability to draw unexpected or dormant constituencies to the polls: not this time.

Labour’s strategically ambiguous Brexit policy pleases no one, including the party leadership. Those sympathetic to Leave positions point out that Labour’s losses were concentrated in Leave-voting areas. Those sympathetic to Remain cite the explosive growth of pro-Remain parties, and argue that Labour voters, even in Leave areas, are predominantly against Brexit. Labour strategists have assumed that Leave voters are the more volatile end of their coalition, liable either to stay home or seek out a party less lukewarm about Brexit: perhaps this election shows they were wrong to count on Remainers’ votes.

Base and Brexit are both necessary but not sufficient explanations for Labour’s poor performance. Corbynism has most often expressed itself, on the national level, as an insurgent force intent on remaking politics: first the Labour Party, with its vastly increased membership and changed political horizons; next the country, intending (in John McDonnell’s words) an ‘irreversible shift in wealth and power’. It has emphasised transformation led from Westminster, and on a national scale.

Local government, still the strongest redoubt of the party’s right, has been mostly absent from that conversation. Administering budgets that have been slashed by successive rounds of cuts, incumbent Labour councils already faced hostile voters: it’s hard to combine insurgency with long-established dominance of the local administration; harder still when observing the general Labour omertà on any criticism of the party’s record. It is noteworthy, then, that in Preston, a Leave-voting city but also the site of the party’s most significant experiment in municipal socialism, Labour increased its majority on the council.

The response of both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn to the results – that they demonstrated a need to ‘deliver’ Brexit – seemed to many a ludicrous travesty of the actual vote. The Labour Party has little incentive to agree a Brexit deal with May: it will provoke open rebellion in the Parliamentary party, repel most of the activist base, and draw Labour into the Tories’ intensifying civil war as defenders of the prime minister. All this makes it unlikely that any deal will be reached. So why are they insisting on their commitment to reaching one?

For both parties, a lot turns on whether Brexit presages a deeper and longer-lasting political realignment, or the parties’ basic electoral coalitions will endure through to the other side of the Article 50 process. Much of the Conservatives’ base is at risk of flaking off to new parties braying loudly of Brexit ‘betrayal’. Labour is not only in danger of losing its anti-systemic energy to Brexit-related insurgents, but faces the difficulty of pushing a socialist politics in a national conversation dominated by arguments over membership of a liberal trading bloc.

Anti-systemic energies are difficult to contain once unleashed. Ballot-spoiling has usually been a minority pursuit in Britain, but substantial numbers – 800 in Basildon, 693 in Great Yarmouth – rejected the options on the ballot paper, with many demanding ‘deliver Brexit’, ‘May out’ or ‘traitor’. These are the preliminary squalls of the forthcoming European elections, and Nigel Farage is ready to capitalise on the discontent. The Brexit Party’s rallies have so far concentrated and amplified this anti-political mood, combining personal loathing of the prime minister with emotional appeals to a sense of betrayal. It is a potent message. The Remainer parties may have been the winners in this last election; it is hard to see how they will beat back the hardest of Leavers in the next one.


  • 7 May 2019 at 4:40pm
    Shackec says:
    Vey amusing to see the EU described as a "liberal trading bloc"!

  • 8 May 2019 at 10:36am
    Anaximander says:
    Labour will not get enough of its young Remainers out to challenge Farage, but in the longer term it probably won't matter.
    The Wirral is subject to a small demographic change: a successful Liverpool entrepreneur moves to the more salubrious Wirral areas, taking their Tory vote with them.
    And the "less securely housed" used to be the offspring of secure council tenants, providing the bulwark of the opposition in waiting to depose a savage Tory government. Now, thanks to Right To Buy, that bloc has been decimated, as Thatcher intended.
    Of course, Corbyn's Brexit stance is controlled by Milne and Murray, his old muckers from Stop The War Coalition -- which was decades ago. McDonnell and Watson would have kicked these Putinbots into the outer stratosphere.

  • 11 May 2019 at 11:48am
    RegPresley says:
    "Labour’s strategically ambiguous Brexit policy"

    Sort of. It's more that it's a pro-Brexit policy that they keep trying to disguise with empty talk about general elections and options of a public vote.

    The ongoing talks with the Government, accompanied by regular hot-and-cold commentary - constructive one day, difficult the next - simply appear to be a way of keeping the uncertainty in place until after 23 May, on the grounds that a definite position either way will be more damaging than an indefinite one. They may be right but we'll never know.

  • 21 May 2019 at 7:54pm
    Robin says:
    I read elsewhere that analyis of the local election vote in absolute terms - rather than swing percentiles - reveals that the Liberal Democrat and Green surge is in fact more of a stasis. What produced the change of seats for the most part was in fact the Tory vote not turning out relative to the previous round of local elections - importantly held at the same time as others with a concurrently high turnout.

    From this I take that nothing has really changed. What remains of the Lib Dems are a hardcore, and the Green vote may be hardening. Labour also stand still.

    The next general election will entirely be a matter of whether the Tory vote is split with a Brexit party and/or bothers to show up at all.