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9 May 2016updated 27 Jul 2021 3:40pm

Thursday’s elections show Labour is on the right trajectory

We are no longer in the era of two-party politics. We've got to get used to it.

By James Schneider

Last week’s elections were good for Labour with a strong showing across England and Wales. Despite the terrible results in Scotland, there is much to take heart in from the rest of the UK. Is Labour poised to win a general election tomorrow? No. Is the party on the right trajectory, building for 2020? Yes. Here’s why.

English councils

Labour won nearly half of the 2769 council seats up for grabs; the Tories won just 30 per cent. Labour is not just the biggest party but has the overall majority of 58 of the 124 councils up for election. The Tories control just 38, the Lib Dems 4, and no party has the majority in 24. Labour won these elections handsomely.

Those that wish to put a negative spin on this clear victory point to the fact that Labour didn’t gain scores of seats, which oppositions have historically done in local elections. This argument does not understand the context of contemporary politics. We are no longer in the era of two-party politics. We’ve got to get used to it. In the past, a protest vote in local elections against a Tory government would go Labour and vice versa. Now it’s different. In 2012, when the seats contested last Thursday were last up and Labour made significant advances – advances which Labour held onto or extended where it counts this time – the Lib Dems were in government and UKIP weren’t an important factor. This year, UKIP ran almost everywhere and the Lib Dems aren’t tainted by the coalition. Labour had enormous scope to make gains in 2012 from the incredibly low base of 2008 when the party was nearly 20 points behind the Tories and almost came third behind the Lib Dems in the popular vote and as the only anti-government option on the ballot paper.

UKIP became an important factor in local government elections in 2013, not 2012. Since then, Labour’s local election vote has hovered around 30 per cent. This year’s results are a real improvement on 2013, 2014 and 2015.

More of Labour’s vote in 2016 is a committed vote for Labour, and less a protest against the government as the protest vote has more places to go. Labour maintaining its dominance in these elections despite less of a protest vote to prop it up bodes well for the solidity of the Labour vote in 2020, especially in Midlands and Southern marginals.

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Labour’s targeting of marginals, masterminded by Jon Trickett, Labour’s election co-ordinator, is a genuine success story. The Tories won a majority in last year’s general election because of their superior efforts in marginal constituencies. This year, Labour appears to have reversed the situation. Labour held its own or advanced in marginal councils across the Midlands and South of England with Tory MPs that Labour must win in 2020: Worcester, Redditch, Derby, Ipswich, Norwich, Harlow, Crawley, Southampton, Hastings.

Momentum, the Labour-supporting campaigning organisation for which I’m a national organiser, organised its supporters to campaign in marginal councils. Many local Momentum groups travelled to canvass in crucial areas Labour had to win. As our organisation develops, we should be able to help get more people on the doorstep in key areas over the next four years as we build for victory in 2020.

However Labour’s critics – both inside and outside the party – try and move the goalposts, these elections show Labour is moving forwards in England.

London and Bristol

In London, Labour achieved a landslide. Sadiq Khan’s 57 per cent of the vote was a stinging rebuke to the Tories who tried to make the campaign into half a referendum on Jeremy Corbyn, half a referendum on whether Londoners are Islamophobic. Londoners, it turns out, like Sadiq Khan, Jeremy Corbyn and reject the politics of division. Labour also increased its vote across London in the Assembly elections and should, with the support of two Green Assembly Members, have a majority in support of Khan. The Tories, meanwhile, have lost a seat and reclaimed their title of the nasty party.

The Bristol result was even more remarkable. Marvin Rees, who was Labour’s candidate four years ago, more than doubled his vote to win with 63 per cent. Labour also won control of the council, making seven gains while all other parties fell backwards.

It should be a source of pride for Labour activists that London has elected a Muslim mayor in the face of an Islamophobic campaign and Bristol, as a city that played such a significant role in the slave trade has elected a mayor of mixed Jamaican, England and Welsh heritage.

Sizeable increases in turnout accompanied both Bristol and London’s great results. Through voter registration drives, community organising and campaigns, and increased doorstep activity, Labour can increase turnout in the 2020 election. The party has over 400,000 members. The party has not done a good enough job of welcoming new members and using their energy, enthusiasm and skills. However, these elections have seen some new members, many assisted by Momentum, out on the doorstep campaigning for Labour. But Labour must do more. If we increase democratic participation, Labour wins. To do so, Labour needs as many active members as possible.

Scotland, Wales, and Westminster by-elections

Scotland was a disaster, with Labour losing seats and dropping to third. Labour’s brand is toxic in many previously solidly Labour voting parts of the country. The party faces a daunting task to rebuild trust with the electorate. While Labour is now an anti-austerity party, it will take time for the message to get through when the disappointments of the past and the mistakes of the Better Together campaign are still present in voters’ minds.

In Wales, by contrast, Labour maintained its dominance, winning 29 out of 60 seats – more than almost anyone predicted. It seems that Welsh voters rewarded Labour and punished the Tories for Labour’s leadership and the Tories’ failure on Port Talbot steelworks.

Labour also held both Westminster by-elections. In Ogmore, Chris Elmore maintained the over 50 per cent vote share won by his predecessor. In Sheffield Brightside and Hillsborough, Gill Furniss won 63 per cent, 6 per cent more than her predecessor and late partner Harry Harpham won at the general election.

A case for unity

In short, the Tory advance of the last couple of years has halted. They’ve fallen back across England and Wales. The key strategist of their victory last year, Lynton Crosby, has been disgraced by the campaign his company helped to run for Zac Goldsmith in London. While not all the way there yet, Labour is now a step closer to kicking out the Tories at the next election.

Labour’s success must be seen in the context of relentless media attacks. These attacks are to be expected as most of the media is well to the right of Labour and those that are supportive of Labour are sceptical about the party’s new direction. These attacks have been assisted by the relatively small, but loud band of Labour MPs, who haven’t come to terms with the membership’s decision to elect Jeremy Corbyn with the biggest mandate in Labour Party history. They were planning a coup, with OpEd slots booked, interviews and TV appearances arranged, and journalist briefings underway.

Whatever the plotters say, Labour’s solid results have stopped them in their tracks. This can only be good for the party. Great unity will help Labour fight the government and build its alternative. 

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