The English council elections were good for Labour, and also quite bad. The Tories had a did well, and also didn’t. Minor parties had good results, and they were also a poor outcome. Why so many contradictions? English local elections give the media something to talk about and give political parties a chance to say how well they are doing with ordinary people outside Westminster, irrespective of the actual results. However there are also some massive caveats that need to be pointed out, rather than just the results themselves.
The result in England are more nuanced than the raw numbers would suggest but unfortunately there is no room for nuance any more. The raw figures are as follows: Labour -18, Conservatives -48, Lib Dems +45, UKIP +25, Greens -3.
Before the elections took place media figures and Labour MPs were worried that under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour was going to get thumped in the election and that this would be grounds for a new leadership election. Labour did not get thumped, they only lost 18 seats, so in this sense it is a decent result. On the flip side any opposition party wishing to be credible in the next general election should not be losing council seats. However I would not put this down to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. Since his election as Labour leader the mainstream media, which is predominantly right-wing, has essentially called him every name under the sun, and this has largely been fuelled by Blairites in the PLP leaking stories every five seconds. I put it to you that if members of the PLP had been united behind the democratic will of the Labour membership, the results would have been better. I’d also like to point out that not only was 2012, the last time most of these elections were fought, a high point in the polls for Ed Miliband but these results clearly don’t show who is on course for victory in the next general election because Ed Miliband is not the Prime Minister.
The Conservatives had a decent night of results as they only lost 48 councillors whilst being a party of government, and being openly divided on a number of issues most notably British membership of the European Union. On the flip side one could argue that despite being a party of government, the media coverage of the Labour Party has been so negative since Corbyn’s election as leader that the Conservatives may have look to increase their number of councillors. Granted this would be a somewhat unrealistic goal as parties of government always tend to do badly in midterm elections, but considering how the mainstream media is dominated by voices and publications that favour the Conservatives, a somewhat plausible argument could be made.
UKIP’s performance was surprisingly underwhelming. Some national polls have put UKIP as high as 17% and the main policy area being discussed is the EU referendum. As well as the EU being the main policy area of UKIP, the Leave campaign have incorporated immigration as another key issue of the EU debate, which is also one of the party’s main policy areas. Furthermore polls have shown that elderly people, the people in most often vote in local elections, overwhelmingly support leaving the European Union. However despite the discourse of British politics being centred on the minutiae of the European debate, UKIP only managed to win an additional 25 seats. I’m sure that the UKIP leadership will spin the results as good because they are still gaining seats, but given the current discourse I would have expected more gains.
For me the surprise of the night came in the form of the Lib Dems. The electoral malaise of the party would eventually come to an end and it appears that such a situation has developed. The party picked up 45 seats and their progress is particularly notable in the South West and the Midlands which are both positive omens for the Lib Dems if they were to return to being a viable political force in 2020. There re two reasons that I believe that this is the case. Firstly members on the Right of the Labour Party or voters who would consider themselves centrists have noted a different political dynamic in Britain and have gravitated towards the Lib Dems as a moderate choice. The leadership of Corbyn began moving the party leftwards and the Conservatives in a majority government have identified themselves to be more right-wing than people believed them to be. The other reason is that the main group that the Lib Dems had annoyed because of their record in the Coalition, young people, do not vote in local elections in the same numbers as the elderly and therefore there wasn’t a groundswell of young people campaigning against the party. Tim Farron may be able to rebuild the party in England but there is still a long way to go before the Lib Dems can be seen the third party of British politics.
It is worth also mentioning the slight decline in councillors for the Greens but such a small swing could be down to a range of factors varying from local to national issues. On a local level, voters may have chosen to support different councillors because of their record on local government as the media doesn’t give the Greens as much focus as other parties. Conversely, the movement of Labour back towards a more socialistic platform may have hoovered up potential Green voters, thus leaving the party with a diminished support base. However I would be sceptical about drawing any substantive conclusions from such a small drop in councillors.
Having identified how the parties did in the election, I’d like to finish by talking about how this isn’t the be all and end all. The media does like to play up the importance of these kinds of elections because otherwise their political correspondents will have to talk about more complex issues in the same limited time span. As I alluded to earlier, though, to say that these elections will indicate who will win the 2020 election is ludicrous. All manner of things could happen in the next four years that could make Labour the most popular party, that could see the Tories have their own SDP-style split, that could see UKIP collapse, that could see a resurgent Lib Dems etc. All of the things I just listed could happen in the next four years, and therefore predicting the 2020 general election four years before it happens is clearly a pointless exercise.
A few days before the 2015 general election the entire media was talking about how the most likely government was going to be a Labour-SNP confidence and supply arrangement with talk of Plaid Cymru possibly being involved and even the prospect of Sinn Féin taking their seats at Westminster to stick it to the Tories. The day after the election David Cameron announced he was going to form a Conservative majority government. Although we all like the idea of being able to guess the future, to say that in 2016 local council elections will accurately determine who will be the Prime Minister in May 2020 is total horse shit. How do I know this? Because in researching this article I had to check the results of these council elections about ten times, and I bet you all my worldly possessions that in 2020 people will be voting on the current issues of the time, and not how the media interpreted the local elections of four years prior.