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Rallings & Thrasher: Labour gains too low to boost Corbyn PM hopes

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On first glance these elections were good for Labour. The party finished with more councils and more councillors than its competitors. In London Labour has more than twice as many councillors than the Conservatives while its dominance in the metropolitan boroughs continues.

gains and losses

gains and losses

A more considered appraisal, however, that takes account of both the local and parliamentary election cycles, is that Labour’s campaign tactics do not suggest it is a party that is ready to dominate local government as a prelude to winning power at the next general election.

Labour won control of only Plymouth City Council from the Conservatives, thanks mainly to the re-capture of three Ukip seats. This prompted an overnight journey for the party leader in order to fulfil the ubiquitous photo-opportunity on Plymouth Hoe. Two further gains were to follow, Kirklees Metropolitan Council and Tower Hamlets LBC, but media attention had cooled by then.

By contrast, the Conservative publicity machine was running in overdrive and in the absence of searching questions from journalists Theresa May’s rhetoric forced Labour onto the back foot.

National Equivalent Vote at Local Elections

Rallings & Thrasher: Labour gains too low to boost Corbyn PM hopes

Comparison with same point in electoral cycle

It is not entirely clear whether Labour’s canvassing returns suggested both Wandsworth LBC and Westminster City Council could be won but for sure the party should have done far more than it did to play down expectations. In the case of Barnet LBC, which Labour has never controlled in the borough’s 54-year existence, the local party’s efforts could not, and did not, combat the broader narrative of antisemitism within Labour’s ranks. In the end the swing moved in the Conservatives’ direction and with it overall control was restored while the prime minister could simultaneously applaud the retention of two flagship boroughs.

This run of luck, in terms of media exposure, continued. It was late on Friday afternoon when Ms May was celebrating her party’s seven gains in Dudley MBC that should ensure a Conservative-run administration there, when the verdict of south west London’s voters registered. The defeats in both Richmond upon Thames LBC and Kingston upon Thames RBC to the Liberal Democrats were spectacular. Almost half the Conservative party’s defeats in London came in these two authorities. Although some seats were gained in Sutton LBC it is the Liberal Democrats that once again control all three boroughs.

And it was not until all the London results became available that the Conservative total of 511 councillors could be confirmed as the record lowest number – although not, of course, the lowest proportion of seats.



Positive headlines for the Conservatives, therefore, disguise some fundamental problems that party has in attracting support from urban voters. The party failed to win a single seat in 17 of the 150 councils, six of which are in London boroughs including Southwark LBC for the first time. Conservative defeat in Trafford MBC, where Labour is now the largest party, reduces the party to majority control in Solihull MBC only among the metropolitan boroughs. Conservative supporters may respond by stating that the party fell just one seat short in Walsall MBC after making five gains and were just two seats shy of winning a majority in Havering LBC.

But if the Conservatives are struggling in the cities the party is doing rather better in the shires. The party did rather better than its principal rival in targeting voters that switched to Ukip in 2014, particularly in authorities in the Midlands and in Essex. As the table of gains and losses demonstrates, the final Conservative tally was helped considerably by net gains made outside of London. The first inkling of this pattern came with Labour’s loss of Nuneaton and Bedworth BC, a council that Labour has run for most of its 45-year existence.

council control

Rallings & Thrasher: Labour gains too low to boost Corbyn PM hopes

Labour’s subsequent setbacks in Derby City Council and Redditch BC proved sufficient to bring the spotlight on to the party’s strategic failures. It had failed with its targeted councils and it had failed to defend what it already held. True, the party was making a net gain of seats but scarcely any more overall than the Lib Dems. In London, most of its gains could be explained by consolidation in Redbridge LBC and the restoration of normal politics in Tower Hamlets LBC. In the metropolitan boroughs the party made net losses, including well below par performances in Bolton and Wigan MBCs and Sheffield and Sunderland city councils.

As our estimate of the national equivalent vote shows, Labour finished behind the Conservatives. Historically speaking, an Opposition party that wants to be seen as a serious contender for government must establish clear leads on this measure throughout the parliament. Labour has failed its first challenge in this respect.

Instead, it is the Liberal Democrats who can claim a degree of success from these elections. There are modest signs of a recovery in areas of former strength that drifted away during the coalition. But some perspective is also needed. Most of the party’s net gains can be explained by its performance in London and in South Cambridgeshire DC where the whole council was elected following new boundaries. Elsewhere, it becomes clear that any return to three-party politics remains a distant possibility and a decade-long project to a clear and visible local government presence.

The Green party registered net seat gains in just 12 councils with Lambeth and Richmond upon Thames LBCs heading the list. There were seven councils that recorded net losses, most notably in Norwich City Council where five seats were lost. The losses to Labour there suggesting that a Corbyn-led party has attracted at least one new cohort of left-leaning voters. With Ukip’s demise the Greens now claim to be the fourth party of local government but a net gain of just eight seats is not exactly breaking the mould.

As in 2017, Ukip was almost wiped out. And it is not only the electors who are deserting them. The Conservative ‘hold’ in Great Yarmouth BC came courtesy of Ukip councillors defecting during the last year: a phenomenon which also contributed to them losing control of their only council, Thanet DC, again without the need for the inconvenience of an election.

Professors Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher, associate members, Nuffield College, Oxford 

Councillor and council control after 2018 local elections



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