Most commentators seem to agree that the local election results were good news for the Labour Party and provide evidence that it is nicely on track to achieve a working majority at the next general election. The majority opinion isn’t always right.
When it comes to elections it is usually best to look hard and long at the facts and to study the detail. Because the headlines often cover up important trends.
Losses stack up for the Conservatives
One of the most obvious facts is that the Conservatives had a truly dreadful result. As I write all but one of the results has been declared and they have lost 1,061 seats. It is normal for a party that is expecting a bad time of it to manage expectations by warning in advance of an improbably large loss so that they can then claim that things aren’t as bad as they might have been. So the Conservatives briefed heavily that they might lose 1,000 seats. They did worse than their expectation managers predicted. Roughly one in every three of their councillors lost their seat.
For months the ruling party has been recording dreadful numbers in opinion polls. Now we have evidence from actual voting figures that the unpopularity is real and deep.
Yet that didn’t translate into a simple victory for the largest opposition party. The Labour Party won 536 seats whereas the Liberal Democrats won 405 and the Greens 241 meaning that between them they posted a significantly larger number of wins. Where those victories happened was highly significant.
Greens and Lib Dems gain while Labour regains
Labour did very well in some of its traditional heartlands but achieved much less progress in the southern regions. Even the quickest of glances at the map of the results reveals a really dramatic divergence in the outcome. In the North West the Labour Party was phenomenally successful and it also did well in Yorkshire. In the South West, the East and the South the Liberal Democrats and the Greens were more often the big winners.
Some of those results were truly dramatic. In East Hertfordshire the Green Party only won one seat at last local elections. This time it gained 19 seats to become the biggest party whilst the Conservatives lost 27 seats. In Horsham the Liberal Democrats started the night with only 13 Councillors whilst the Conservatives were firmly in control with 32. Now the boot is on the other foot as the Liberals won 15 seats to gain an overall majority with the Conservatives on 11 seats being little bigger than the Greens who have 8. It would be fascinating to watch the faces in that council chamber in Sussex when the morose group of remaining Conservatives arrives for the first meeting of the new council.
The Liberal Democrats also won handsomely in Mid Devon where they won 21 extra seats and spoiled the coronation party for many Conservatives with their win in Windsor. In Bath and North East Somerset Jacob Rees Mogg should be feeling a touch less smug this morning as his area now has 41 Liberal Democrat Councillors and only 3 Conservatives.
For the Conservatives this risks the next general election becoming a perfect storm of bad news. They look likely to struggle to win the so called red wall seats because of much improved results for Labour. When it comes to the Southern regions they face serious competition from the Liberal Democrats and even in a few places from the Greens.
General election result still uncertain
That pincer movement should be enough to result in a significant Conservative defeat at the next general election even if they succeed in their strategy of clinging on to the last moment and hoping that they can sell Rishi Sunak as a safe pair of hands. It isn’t going to be easy to persuade electors to restore their trust in a party which has delivered quite so many economic hardships.
Yet that doesn’t necessarily mean a majority Labour government. The strategy of telling the red wall voters what they want to hear has clearly worked well for the intended audience but it has left the Labour party with a problem in many other parts of the country. How does a party which is firmly committed to sticking with Brexit persuade the parts of the nation which thinks it was a huge mistake to enthusiastically troop out and vote for it?
Opinion polls now show a hefty majority of voters don’t just think Brexit was a mistake. They want to rejoin the EU. A lot of those voters live in the southern regions and have just demonstrated that they are very reluctant to switch from Conservative to Labour but open minded about doing so to the Liberal Democrats or the Greens. There are a very large number of seats in those parts of the country and the consequence could be significant gains for the smaller parties and a Parliament with no overall control.
Labour could well find itself stacking up huge numbers of votes at the general election in places like Manchester without gaining as many new seats as it needs. Other parties are proving a lot better at taking seats from the Conservatives and that is what has to be done to change the country.
Beyond the red wall
Starmer made a hugely important choice when he decided to pivot his party strongly in the direction of trying to attract back voters in former red wall seats. He nailed his colours very firmly to Brexit in the hope of winning them back. The local election results show that this might have been a very bad tactical mistake. Even in the short term it may not work whereas in the long run it looks to be a really short sighted approach. What is attractive to older voters in more traditional working class communities isn’t always sufficiently attractive to younger voters in areas which don’t like the consequences of Brexit.
Oh, and there is one other small problem with nailing your party’s colours to making a success of Brexit. It isn’t just a tactical mistake. It is a moral and a practical one. Brexit can’t be made a success and it is never a good idea to be dishonest with voters.