As soon as the results started coming in, the story was that they were a setback for the Corbyn leadership. BBC reporters were repeating the weird phrase “peak Corbyn” from 6am onwards as though they’d all developed the same nervous tic. This was the line of attack also pursued by the Labour right with the ever reliable Jess Philips, probably the only MP in her party willing to defend Amber Rudd’s handling of the Home Office’s racist treatment of the Windrush generation, and Chuka Umunna.
Yet the figures tell a different story. Labour control 74 councils, the Tories 46; Labour won 2350 seats, a gain of 77 and the Tories won 1332, a loss of 33. In a context where Tory voters don’t stop voting for the party when it’s responsible for 71 deaths in their own neighbourhood, that is not a negligible gain.
Labour knocked the Tories out of Trafford, an all the more remarkable result given the lack of support given to leftist Steve Longden in Brooklands by the party apparatus. The left mobilised for Steve, including a high-profile campaigning visit by Owen Jones, and succeeded in taking Brooklands, as well as the official target seats. Labour took Plymouth, winning four seats previously held by the Tories. There were other places where Labour took seats they had not held for decades: Blenheim Park in Southend for example.
Much of the Tory crowing and the right’s carping has been over the results in Wandsworth and Westminster. Many Labour supporters in London had convinced themselves that these former Tory bastions would fall. It was a close-run thing. In Wandsworth, Labour won 38.7% of the vote and the Tories 38.%, with the Conservatives managing to win more seats and in Westminster, a Tory flagship, Labour won 41.1% of the vote against the Tories’ 42.%.
Every dirty trick in the book was thrown at the Corbyn leadership in the weeks before the election. He was a Czech agent. Moscow had helped his election campaign. He’d waited three hours before sending a message about the birth of a royal baby. He was responsible for “rampant antisemitism” in his party.
This nonsense filled the TV and radio. Some of the mud probably stuck, but as Jewish socialist activist David Rosenberg observed, in Redbridge, a borough with a large Jewish population, Labour increased its number of councillors from 36 to 51 and in Barnet, another area with a significant Jewish community, Labour’s vote went up by 2.7%.
Ukip voters are now the Tories’ electoral lifeline. The racist, xenophobic organisation is now dead, but the nearly 4 million people who voted for it in 2015 in full knowledge of what it was, now largely vote Tory. Many of them want a racist, xenophobic version of Brexit and see the Tories as their best chance of getting it. Labour under previous leaders more than dabbled with trying to win that racist vote on its own terms and the section of the party that supported that is the one which is most hostile to the Corbyn leadership.
These local government elections were a modest victory for Labour. Results can be very idiosyncratic when politics are fought at the parochial level and we’ve all seen candidates barely capable of expressing a political idea do surprisingly well while more impressive women and men don’t even make the shortlist.
The general election will not be fought over potholes and streetlights. The last one showed that with a radical programme Labour can turn the tide against the Tories and few council candidates were able to fight on that type of platform. Nevertheless, in many parts of England there are now more left councillors than there have been in a generation. Socialists in the party need to work with them to break the passivity and defeatism that has been the hallmark of Labour in local government for a decade.