What would be a good night for Jeremy Corbyn in the local elections? It’s the question that I get asked more often than any other when going through the responses for the “You Ask Us” section of our podcast.
On the one hand, Corbyn’s arch critics are suggesting that Labour should pick up 400 council seats if it is to be on a trajectory to take back power in 2020. On the other, the Labour leadership argues that what they need to do is show improvement on last year’s general election defeat, when the party trailed the Conservatives by close to seven points. As the seats contested this year were last up in 2012, after George Osborne’s disastrous budget – in which he cut the 50p rate of tax and paid for it by hiking taxes on grannies and Greggs – put the government on its back, even halving the Tory lead from 2015 would mean considerable losses of council seats.
Who’s right? Well, there are two hurdles that Corbyn has to clear: the political and the psephological. My hunch is that the political hurdle is probably quite low – even the nightmare scenario of a third-place finish in Scotland, defeat for Sadiq Khan in London, and the loss of 200 council seats won’t imperil Corbyn all that much. Should Zac Goldsmith pull off a shock victory, many Labour MPs, and more importantly, Corbyn’s power base in the membership, will blame Goldsmith’s campaign, not Khan or Corbyn.
As for Scotland, no-one in Labour wants to make averting disaster north of the border a condition for remaining in place at the top of the party, while Corbyn’s critics will take the flack for the losses, rather than the leader. So far, his internal enemies have yet to find a dividing line with their leader that harms Corbyn more than them: all that members know about Corbyn’s would-be successors is that they like Trident, bombing Syria, and Big Macs.
But more important than all of that is the European referendum. Although not all Corbynsceptic MPs are strong pro-Europeans, enough are – one recently told me that a Brexit would result in “economic crisis – that no coup attempt is going to get started until the referendum is out of the way. Should the referendum be lost, it will be Cameron, not Corbyn, who faces a coup, and if it is won, at least some of the plaudits will go to Corbyn, who will play a bigger role in the referendum campaign after the local elections are past.
My feeling immediately after Corbyn’s victory was that the size and scale of his victory – not only was it large, but he won among members as well as three-pound sign-ups – meant that he would lead Labour until he retires voluntarily or is defeated at a general election, and that remains my view.
But enough about the internal party politics – what would be a “good night” psephologically-speaking? What would mean that Corbyn was not just safe as Labour leader but on course to be defeat David Cameron in the polls?
I wouldn’t fetishise seat gains overmuch. Yes, there is still plenty of room for gains – Labour still has fewer council seats than it did in 2006, when it had gone through nine local elections in government, suffering the usual losses that the governing party has gone through with the exceptions of 1982 and 1985, both of which preceded landslide victories – and when the unpopularity of Tony Blair and the Iraq war were both at their height.
And certainly, losing seats would be a bad sign. Even when the Conservative Party was trying to get rid of Iain Duncan Smith, it gained seats in opposition. When the Labour party was on the cusp of splitting into two parties in 1981, it gained seats in opposition. Without wishing to upset any local councillors who might be reading, people don’t really take local government all that seriously and use it as an opportunity to kick the incumbent government.
But there are two complicating factors this time that make putting an exact figure on how many seat gains would be a good figure. The first is Ukip, who weren’t a force, either organisationally or politically, when these seats were last fought. (That problem is even more stark in Wales, last contested in 2011. Ukip look likely to win seven seats there, having won zero in 2011. It’s not yet clear if that is a good, bad or average performance for Ukip in Wales)
The second is the Liberal Democrats. If you are on Twitter you may have seen Liberal Democrats getting very excited about the #libdemfightback, a series of impressive council by-election performances since the party escaped the twin taint of being in coalition with the Conservatives and having Nick Clegg as leader.
My hunch is that fightback isn’t as impressive as it seems. The Liberal Democrats have benefited from having some popular MPs, whose local followings weren’t quite big enough to save their seats but are still large, opting to fight council seats. (In Torbay, Adrian Sanders’ personal popularity secured a margin of victory that would make Vladimir Putin blush) And just as in the Eastleigh by-election in the last parliament, local council by-elections allow the Liberal Democrats to deploy their still-energetic membership very effectively. Eastleigh, of course, was lost and lost badly in the general election when resources were spread more thinly.
My guess is that the same will happen this time – but if I’m not, and the Liberal Democrats are once again benefiting from being an opposition party, that will also distort what constitutes a “good night” for Labour.
So instead of worrying overmuch about numbers, worry about places. Although winning seats and taking control of councils is not a guarantee of winning control of the parliamentary seat – look at Harlow, Nuneaton, and Ipswich, all of which have Labour representation at a local level but send a Conservative MP to Westminster – good performances, both in terms of increasing votes and seats, are a positive sign. So look at how Labour does in its own marginals and in places that are Conservative at a Westminster level, rather than worrying about an exact figure either way.
If you have any questions you’d like us to tackle on our podcast, drop me an email at stephen.bushnewstatesman.co.uk and we’ll try to tackle it.