There is no doubt that the results, with Labour losing more than 400 seats across Britain and the Tories gaining more than 500 are a serious setback. As an overall picture, they certainly don’t give Corbyn supporters much to cheer about. Corbyn himself is right to say they pose ‘a challenge on a historic scale.’
Perhaps the most significant message of the results is that Socialist Resistance’s distinctive analysis of the Ukipisation of the Tory Party has been shown to be true and has now entered mainstream analysis. The local elections resulted in UKIP’s collapse, with their former voters disproportionately switching to the Tories, feeling that May and the Tories now speak for them. Ukip fulfilled its historic purpose not only in winning the referendum but in effecting a significant shift to the right in British politics as a whole.
These were very unusual local elections and not only because the General election was looming in the background. In England, the elections were for the most part in historically strong Tory areas – the so-called Shire Counties – and most big cities including London had no council elections. The Mayoral elections for the new combined authority areas had extremely poor turnouts indicating there is little enthusiasm among working class people for this new form of autocratic business-led municipal government.
The Tories fought the council and mayoral elections not generally by campaigning on local issues but by projecting Theresa May as a presidential figure – albeit one in hiding. Large sums of money were spent on wrap around supplements to local newspapers talking about her supposed qualities as a ‘strong and stable’ leader for the coming Brexit negotiations.
And that will of course be the way that the General Election campaign itself will be fought – emphasizing what the Tories see as their strong card in comparison with Labour’s continued divisions. The Labour right, echoed by much of the media, continues with the same old story: everything that went relatively well for Labour was supposedly despite Corbyn, while every failure was apparently his fault.
In the run up to May 4, it was predicted, for example, that Labour would do extremely badly in Wales. Predicted loss of Cardiff council, the biggest in Wales was front and centre. If this had happened, undoubtedly Jeremy Corbyn, who held one of his first rallies after the election was called in the Welsh capital, would have been blamed. Now the results are better than expected, then it’s Welsh Labour under Carwyn Jones that is apparently the reason.
This ignores the fact that these local elections didn’t take place in many areas where Labour’s support is strongest. It neglects to point out that low turnout disproportionately hits Labour’s vote. Over 50s are more likely to vote even with a low turnout – and are further to the right than younger generations. A recent poll of full time undergraduates showed 55% support for Labour (61% amongst the young women). Campaigning for young people to register and to use their vote to punish the Tories will need to be central to Labour’s General election pitch.
Never the less the local election results don’t presage the Tory landslide that Theresa May wants on June 9. If nothing else changed between now and then we’d be talking about a Tory lead of 11 points (Tories 38% Labour 27%) – exactly what some recent opinion polls have been showing – a reduced lead from when the election was called. And it’s not that different from the figures under Miliband – who scored 29% in the 2013 local elections.
And John Curtice points out in the Independent, its only four points above what Cameron had going into the last election – which resulted in a majority of only 12 MPs. That’s why the Tories themselves are not crowing.
And of course things will change as the General election itself draws nearer.
Hundreds of thousands more Labour campaigners will be out on the doorstep talking to potential voters, campaigning outside transport hubs, at football matches, in shopping centres or outside schools and colleges to get the message across.
The broadcast media will be forced to give the Labour front bench equal coverage rather than the scandal of the BBC increasingly as the mouthpiece of the Tories paid for by the licence fee – not to mention the fact that the safest seat for UKIP seems to be on Radio 4’s Any Questions.
Even media pundits accept that campaigning can make a difference – they claim typically 5%, that’s because what is posed for the thousands of potential Labour campaigners is exceeding what’s been done before. But what has been done in terms of building Labour’s membership since Corbyn was elected already break records – now the task is to turn those people into activists getting the message out.
For Labour and labour supporters therefore the challenge is to turn the conversation to politics – particularly to key issues such as the NHS, education and housing which are central to peoples’ lives. It’s about explaining that Labour will reverse the tax giveaways to the millionaires while protecting the living standards of working people, of pensioners and of claimants.
It’s a mountain to climb – but people flocked to join Labour because they saw in him someone committed to a different vision of society – for people not profit, peace not war.