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Shadow communities secretary vacancy encapsulates Labour's disarray

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Commentary on troubling times for Labour – locally and nationally

Local elections determine the destiny of local services: this year’s polls constitute more than a prologue to the general election.

However, it is hard not to look at the result – analysed in detail for LGC by professors Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher – and conclude anything other than that Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party is a country mile away from forming the government.

A mere three two-tier counties are not under Conservative control – and in all of them the Tories are the largest party.

The shires tend not to be Labour heartlands but the party needs to make inroads in them to remain competitive. In the 2005 county elections, held on the same day Tony Blair secured a 66-seat Westminster majority, Labour won in six counties (admittedly at a time there were more such councils).

As professors Rallings and Thrasher, the University of Plymouth’s prominent psephologists, write for LGC, last Thursday’s polls offered joy for no other party, at least in England. The Liberal Democrats confounded moderate optimism by losing seats and Ukip was annihilated. Literally annihilated.

Labour can take solace only from its retention of councils in Wales and two combined authority mayoral victories.

The usual pattern of the party not in power in Westminster holding sway in local government (as voters use local polls as a mid-term protest against the governing party) has been broken. The Tories are the dominant force in local and, surely after 8 June, in national government.

However, as the rows over the need for more social care funding in counties have already shown, one party dominance is no guarantee for central/local harmony. Tory councillors may be supportive of a Theresa May victory next month but they will not always be supportive of a May administration’s agenda.

For Labour, the situation is bleak. It lost 152 seats in England alone – this compared to a disappointing performance in 2013.

While local factors impacted on many results, it is hard to believe that each result constituted a fair verdict on the performance of its councillors and councils.

The party’s national disarray was further emphasised today by the confirmation that its shadow communities secretary Teresa Pearce will be stepping down after the general election.

Thus the main party of Opposition has no one earmarked to take the helm at the Department for Communities & Local Government within a month of polling day.

This is not to say that Labour’s frontbench ranks are lacking in local government talent. Jim McMahon, in its communities team, was a successful leader of Oldham MBC; Roberta Blackman-Woods, a housing spokeswoman suggested as a successor to Ms Pearce, was a welfare officer with Newcastle City Council.

David Cameron only had two shadow communities secretaries in the five years up to him becoming prime minister in 2010. One of them, Eric Pickles, subsequently gained the Cabinet role. In contrast, Jeremy Corbyn is already on his third shadow communities secretary since becoming party leader less than two years ago.

He is likely to appoint his fourth shadow communities secretary in the reshuffle that follows the 8 June poll. That is, assuming he has sufficient MPs willing to serve in his shadow cabinet. And – of course – assuming Mr Corbyn does not somehow find a way of reversing the tide of blue witnessed in the local polls.

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