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Five lessons from the mayoral elections

Andy Burnham is pretty damn good, among other things.

I’ve been looking over the ward-by-ward results of the Greater Manchester mayoral race, because I know how to have a good time.

I’ve also been looking at the borough-by-borough results for the Merseyside – I am aware that the names for these new combined authorities are imperfect but I am using them as easily understood shorthand – Bath and Bristol, Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, Tees Valley and West Midlands mayoral races.

Here are a few things that leap out.

Labour is winning the future – but falling back in the present

One of the useful things about local elections is that they give us a far clearer idea of who votes for each of the parties than general elections. Why? Because general election results are declared by constituencies but local elections are decided by smaller council wards.

That allows us to have a far more accurate idea – or at least a significantly better guess – of who it is that actually votes for each of the parties.

We have a pretty good grip on who the average Labour voter under Jeremy Corbyn is. It’s pretty similar to the average Labour voter under Ed Miliband: young, living in a big city, or from a population with a high number of graduates, ethnic minorities or both*.

*This isn’t the same as being an ethnic minority or a graduate. There is also a good amount of polling that shows that white voters without degrees who live among non-white voters are more likely to be comfortable with ethnic diversity, too. So it’s not as simple as “Labour’s coalition is one of ethnic minorities and graduates”. It also includes a number of white non-graduates who are comfortable with ethnic diversity and/or graduates.

The problem for Labour – under Miliband as well as Corbyn – is that they are recreating the coalition that elected Barack Obama twice in a country with the demographics of the United States in the 1970s – when the Obama coalition was too small to win power.

The Labour coalition looks a lot like Britain in 30 years’ time. The difficulty is that the election is 31 days away.

The Liberal Democrats are in a heap of trouble

Although it’s possible that Jeremy Corbyn will make history on 8 June, no opposition party has bettered its local election performance at a general election. People tend to use local elections to punish the government before returning to the fold at general election time. That, obviously, doesn’t bode at all well for Labour.

But less discussed is the Liberal Democrats’ performance, which is if anything worse than Labour’s as far as winning seats in June goes. Take the Bath and Bristol mayoral race. They ran Stephen Williams, the former MP for Bristol West as their candidate.

The composite constituencies of the Bath and Bristol combined mayoralty – which also includes North East Somerset – should be fertile territory for the Liberal Democrats. They are the only party to have won parliamentary seats across all of the local authorities contested.

They got just 20,000 votes out of the whole of Bristol. More troubling still they got only 10,000 votes out of Bath and North East Somerset. There are no ward-by-ward results for this mayoral race available, but as the only plausible source of Labour votes outside of Bath itself is are the small former mining towns, it looks likely that the Liberal Democrats actually came third in Bath, a seat they held until 2015 and hope to take back in June.  

In Solihull – part of the West Midlands mayoralty, and a seat the Liberal Democrats held until 2015 – they got just 3578 votes, behind Labour on 6695 and light years behind Andy Street with 35,903.

They did beat Labour in the city of Cambridge itself, but not by very much – 13273 to 12222. If you take out the wards of the constituency called Cambridge (you’d think that’d be the same as the city, but no), you get a dead heat.

Outside the mayoral areas, they fell back in Cornwall and failed to make inroads in Cheltenham.

And don’t forget that Tim Farron is no more immune to the effects of political gravity than Corbyn is. You’d expect the Liberal Democrats to do worse in June than they did in May, all of which suggests they will do well not to end up with eight seats again. Their big hope is that anti-Tory voters who tactically backed Labour to stop the Conservatives across the mayoral regions will flock home to the Liberal Democrats in June.

Keep an eye out for the “hidden landslide”

The 2015 general election was a very bad night for Labour. Not only did they lose, but in the seats they lost in 2005 and 2010, the Conservative majorities increased still further, eroding the number of genuine marginals.

The nightmare for Labour in June 2017 is not just defeat but a further rolling back of its position in the seats it needs to win from the Tories.

The picture in the local elections suggests that may happen again. For instance, Labour finished 5868 votes behind the Tories in Peterborough, and, again, you’d expect them to underperform that on 8 June if history is any guide. 

The picture in marginals is grim for Labour

Across the marginals, Labour’s performance is not where they ought to be if they are going to win on 8 June. They lost the West Midlands mayoral race by 14127 votes in the first round to the Conservatives. (Dudley South is Conservative-held, Dudley North is Labour-held, both are marginal.)

They lost Walsall – which includes David Winnick’s Labour-held marginal and Valerie Vaz’s safe Labour seat – heavily but Walsall is always more marginal at a local level than a general election so that is less alarming than it would be elsewhere.

In the Tees Valley mayoral contest, they lost in Stockton-on-Tees – which includes the Conservative  marginal of Stockton South and the safe Labour seat of Stockton North – by 4069 votes. They lost in the wards making up the marginal seat of Darlington (albeit on a low turnout) by 1384 votes.

Andy Burnham is the one that got away

There is one very big exception to the gloom: the electoral performance of Andy Burnham.

The local elections and the other mayoral results give you an idea of what a generic Labour candidate “ought” to have done in the Greater Manchester mayoral vote, ie, they should have won but only after a second round.

To put the Greater Manchester mayoral race in better perspective: in the general election, Labour got 60 per cent of the vote in the constituencies making up the Greater Liverpool mayoralty. Steve Rotheram got 59.3 per cent, in other words, he did about par, and slightly overperformed considering the fall in the Labour vote across the country. In the Tees Valley combined authority, Labour got 43 per cent of the vote - their candidate, Sue Jeffrey, got 39 per cent of the vote.  

Now here's how it looked in Greater Manchester. Labour got 46 per cent of the vote in the general election - but Andy Burnham got 63 per cent of the vote. 

Nor, unlike Sadiq Khan, who, as I’ve written before, basically did as well as you’d expect any Labour candidate to do under Corbyn, did he run up the score in friendly territory.

He won the wards making up Graham Brady’s seat of Altrincham and Sale West – which under various names has been solidly Conservative since 1945 – by 2,600 votes. He won the Conservative-held marginals of Bolton West and Bury North by 8884 and 4729 votes respectively.

To put it simply: given that the opposition parties tend to overperform their vote share in local elections compared to general elections, Andy Burnham is the only politician last week who posted scores where you’d need them to be for Labour to gain ground compared to the 2015 election.

More strikingly, one of the overarching stories of the local elections was that even when Labour didn’t lose ground – the party dropped about three points on the last time these seats were contested in England and Wales – was that the Ukip collapse benefited the Conservatives.

Except in Greater Manchester. Again, Ukip collapsed throughout the conurbation just as they did nationwide. To give you an idea: in Rochdale and Heywood & Middleton, the two most Ukip-friendly seats in the combined authority, Ukip got 333 and 538 voters respectively. Burnham won by 8598 and 6603 votes.

In terms of the debate about how movable those “Ukip 2015, Conservative 2017” voters are, the things Andy Burnham said and did are probably worth looking at. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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Leader: Trump's dangerous nation

From North Korea to Virginia, the US increasingly resembles a rogue state.

When Donald Trump was elected as US president, some optimistically suggested that the White House would have a civilising effect on the erratic tycoon. Under the influence of his more experienced colleagues, they argued, he would gradually absorb the norms of international diplomacy.

After seven months, these hopes have been exposed as delusional. On 8 August, he responded to North Korea’s increasing nuclear capabilities by threatening “fire and fury like the world has never seen”. Three days later, he casually floated possible military action against Venezuela. Finally, on 12 August, he responded to a white supremacist rally in Virginia by condemning violence on “many sides” (only criticising the far right specifically after two days of outrage).

Even by Mr Trump’s low standards, it was an embarrassing week. Rather than normalising the president, elected office has merely inflated his self-regard. The consequences for the US and the world could be momentous.

North Korea’s reported acquisition of a nuclear warhead small enough to fit on an intercontinental missile (and potentially reach the US) demanded a serious response. Mr Trump’s apocalyptic rhetoric was not it. His off-the-cuff remarks implied that the US could launch a pre-emptive strike against North Korea, leading various officials to “clarify” the US position. Kim Jong-un’s regime is rational enough to avoid a pre-emptive strike that would invite a devastating retaliation. However, there remains a risk that it misreads Mr Trump’s intentions and rushes to action.

Although the US should uphold the principle of nuclear deterrence, it must also, in good faith, pursue a diplomatic solution. The week before Mr Trump’s remarks, the US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, rightly ruled out “regime change” and held out the possibility of “a dialogue”.

The North Korean regime is typically depicted as crazed, but its pursuit of nuclear weapons rests on rational foundations. The project is designed to guarantee its survival and to strengthen its bargaining hand. As such, it must be given incentives to pursue a different path.

Mr Trump’s bellicose language overshadowed the successful agreement of new UN sanctions against North Korea (targeting a third of its $3bn exports). Should these prove insufficient, the US should resume the six-party talks of the mid-2000s and even consider direct negotiations.

A failure of diplomacy could be fatal. In his recent book Destined for War, the Harvard historian Graham Allison warns that the US and China could fall prey to “Thucydides’s trap”. According to this rule, dating from the clash between Athens and Sparta, war typically results when a dominant power is challenged by an ascendent rival. North Korea, Mr Bew writes, could provide the spark for a new “great power conflict” between the US and China.

Nuclear standoffs require immense patience, resourcefulness and tact – all qualities in which Mr Trump is lacking. Though the thought likely never passed his mind, his threats to North Korea and Venezuela provide those countries with a new justification for internal repression.

Under Mr Trump’s leadership, the US is becoming an ever more fraught, polarised nation. It was no accident that the violent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, culminating in the death of the 32-year-old Heather Heyer, took place under his presidency. Mr Trump’s victory empowered every racist, misogynist and bigot in the land. It was doubtless this intimate connection that prevented him from immediately condemning the white supremacists. To denounce them is, in effect, to denounce himself.

The US hardly has an unblemished history. It has been guilty of reckless, immoral interventions in Vietnam, Latin America and Iraq. But never has it been led by a man so heedless of international and domestic norms. Those Republicans who enabled Mr Trump’s rise and preserve him in office must do so no longer. There is a heightened responsibility, too, on the US’s allies to challenge, rather than to indulge, the president. The Brexiteers have allowed dreams of a future US-UK trade deal to impair their morality.

Under Mr Trump, the US increasingly resembles a breed it once denounced: a rogue state. His former rival Hillary Clinton’s past warning that “a man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons” now appears alarmingly prescient.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear