Polling Station. Photo: Wikimedia Commons Polling Station. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The local election results have been devastating for the Tories, and the lesson for Labour is that it must be bolder and more radical, argues Shabbir Lakha

According to the mainstream media, the Tories and Labour have both suffered substantial losses in the local elections. Today’s Evening Standard headline reads “Slap in the face for May and Corbyn” (their emphasis), and one of the BBC’s three main articles covering the results is “Why has Labour lost seats?”

According to these outlets, the net 1,334 seats lost by the Tories and the 82 lost by Labour are comparable. It is apparently valid to say that the net 45 councils the Tories have lost control of is equal in weight to the net 6 councils Labour has lost control of.

This is of course absurd. This was the biggest local election defeat for a ruling party since 1995. When Labour lost the by-election in Copeland political editors and analysts were lining up for media appearances calling on Jeremy Corbyn to resign. Yet another historic defeat for Theresa May, and no sign – and barely a call – for her to step down.

There is also no justification for extrapolating these results to a general election scenario – like the BBC have done by projecting that the Tories and Labour together would get only 28% each in a general election based on these results. The turnout is estimated around only 25% and the votes for independent councillors is far bigger than in a general election – they accounted for 2% of the seats won in the General election, whereas they account for 13% of the council seats won. This also explains some of the Lib Dem and Green gains.

What do the results actually tell us?

In terms of the actual balance of power represented by control of councils, the only real shift has been away from the Conservatives – around three quarters to there being no overall control, and about a quarter to the Lib Dems.

The results are undoubtedly catastrophic for the Conservatives. It’s evident that in all parts of the country, people are sick of austerity and sick of this Tory government that isn’t capable of governing.

For Labour, the results are not nearly as bad as they are being made out by mainstream commentators, but they aren’t good either. There are a number of reasons for this; yes Brexit is one of them, but it’s not the only or main reason.

Some of the areas where Labour lost seats are strong Leave areas, such as Ashfield, Bolsover and Carlisle. And some of the reason for this will be Labour’s fudged position and pandering to the pro-Remain right in the party. But Labour has tended to lose seats in councils it already controls, in most cases not by enough to lose them control of the council, and they have tended to make gains in Conservative-controlled councils, also in most cases not enough to take control but taking it out of Tory control in a lot of places.

I think the main reason for this comes down to austerity. The level of cuts hoisted onto local council budgets by the government has been absolutely brutal, and the worst round of cuts since 2010 was imposed at the 2018 winter budget which is only just kicking in. Too many Labour councils have passed on the cuts to their constituents without any pushback. Sure, the Labour Party’s national policy is to not set illegal budgets and it can be debated whether or not this is the best strategy, but Labour councillors in localities have often inflicted the cuts without protest or effective communication which makes them seen as responsible for the cuts. In Barnsley for example, the area that has been hardest-hit by austerity in the whole country and where the council is Labour controlled, Labour lost a third of their seats that were up for contest.

The “Remain backlash”

The Lib Dems and the Greens have done well in the local elections, gaining 703 and 194 seats respectively. The media and People’s Vote advocates have already declared this as the Remain backlash. The reality is not that simple. In some areas like Bath and North East Somerset which decisively voted to Remain in 2016, the Lib Dems won 20 seats and took control of the council. But less than half of the councils that the Lib Dems took control of are Remain areas, and a lot of the smaller gains that the Lib Dems made all over the country are in strong Leave areas and places where the Brexit Party is expected to win in the upcoming EU elections.

So, rather than indicating a surge in support for Remain, their success is an indication of the Remain vote being more effectively mobilised and to some extent this is also down to the disillusionment with the two main parties which made the Lib Dems and the Greens the protest vote. I also expect that the recent success of the school strikes and Extinction Rebellion in breaking through the Brexit logjam and dominating national headlines will have done big favours for the Green Party at a local level.

What should Labour take from the results?

The line that has been used by Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and others is that the message to take from the local elections is that voters want Brexit to be sorted, and that message has been received. This is partly true. Voters are clearly sick of the ongoing shambles around Brexit and want it to be resolved, and I think the low turnout speaks to this as much as the results themselves.

But more than this, the message for Labour is that there has to be a return to covering the real issues at hand. This isn’t entirely Labour’s fault, their election campaign has been largely centred around ending austerity but it hasn’t been given due coverage in the media. Looking at the 2017 general election campaign, it’s clear that the way around this is an energetic campaign with much more grassroots campaigning and more of the kind of rallies where teenagers are climbing onto windows to get a peak than this election has seen.

There also has to be action and not just words. Jeremy Corbyn is anti-austerity, and Labour’s manifesto is to end austerity, I’m sure most people in the country know this. But it’s been 2 years since the last general election, Theresa May is still in power and there seems to be no mechanism to remove her from office. In the meanwhile, it is Labour councils that are inflicting austerity measures on people, in some cases more than willingly. There has to be an attempt to show that Labour is really serious about countering austerity in every way possible and why a vote for Labour will materially improve people’s lives.

Insofar as Brexit is concerned, I think the lesson is that fudging the question is not going to cut it. Labour has the right message of trying to unite Leavers and Remainers, but trying to appease the right isn’t the way to do that. A second referendum would, apart from anything else, open the door to keeping the national agenda stuck on Brexit while giving the Tories free rein to continue its programme of austerity. The position Labour had until last year was evidently the right one, and it needs to get back to that, without caveats.

Shabbir Lakha

Shabbir Lakha is a Stop the War officer, a People's Assembly activist and a member of Counterfire.