Signal In The Noise

The sky hasn’t fallen, but Labour should be doing much better.

In the pre-dawn hours of May 7th, 2016, results of the local elections slowly began to pour in. In bustling vote count chambers, councillors waited with baited breath. How badly would Labour have been beaten back to its heartlands? What scale of disaster did the party have to steel its soul for with Corbyn at the helm?

Not much, it turned out. Talks of disasters for Corbyn were hyperbolic. Total losses in England stood at 18 councillors, nowhere near what some had predicted. Labour held onto all of it’s English councils. Sadiq Khan, the soft left Labour candidate for the London mayoral race, romped to victory with a solid 56.8%, bringing with it some much needed breathing space for the party. Jeremy Corbyn proudly declared that Labour had hung on.

Of course, better than expected losses aren’t exactly words which spur the troops on, but some have taken this better than expected view and turned it into an almost conspiratorial idea that the media is trying to smear the embattled Labour leader. Numbers of Corbyn winning 47% being heralded as a disaster for him, while Blair winning 46% of councils being shown as a triumph circulated social media. Craig Murray notes that in 2012, Ed Miliband’s high water mark was matched by Corbyn in 2016, yet Miliband’s was seen as a triumph. Corbyn’s was not.

Craig Murray should learn his numbers. In 2012, Labour wrestled control of over 32 councils, bringing their number to a healthy 75, while the Tories saw their number of controlled councils fall by 12. Labour councillors swelled their ranks by 823, bringing the total to a hefty 2158. By comparison, Tory councillor numbers fell to just 1005. In 2014, Miliband oversaw another swell in the number of councils controlled by Labour to 82. Labour’s inroads in 1995 were also massive. The 46% of councillors banded around by the infographic translates into some 1807 new councillors swelling Blair’s ranks. Corbyn losing 18 councillors from the much diminished 1326 seats Labour holds is hardly matching Miliband’s high water mark (or Blair’s for that matter).

Much of the data is hard to compare directly, as the elections of 1995, 2012, 2014 and 2016 were for a different set of seats, making the measures not terribly meaningful. For instance, in 2011, the Tories found themselves on 38% of the national vote equivalent to Labour’s 37%, and parties historically go through cycles of opposition gaining grounds and governments clawing it back. But excluding general election years, opposition parties have always gained seats in local elections (barring 1982 and 1985). Doubly problematic is that analysis by Plymouth University Professors Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher from Number Cruncher, an independent polling data analysis service, suggests that what happens in the local ballot box is a good indicator of what happens come a general election. 

Perhaps the biggest thorn in Labour’s rose is Scotland; a nation famously declared to have more pandas than Tory MPs, saw the Tories gain 31 seats to Labour’s 24, and  form the official opposition in the Scottish Parliament – something that was, until recently, unthinkable. Writing in The Conversation, researcher Craig McAngus, who sifted through British Election Study data, noted that Labour’s problems in Scotland were rooted much deeper than the simplistic narrative of many on the left that Labour lost because it wasn’t anti-austerity. Rather, the unambiguously anti-austerity Corbyn has found natural supporters have both made the SNP their progressive home, and are dissuaded by Labour’s position on independence. Data hungry analysts will have to wait for the results of a Scottish Election 2016 Study, commissioned by Research Council UK, to find out if voters jumped from red to blue after losing faith in Labour’s ability to back the Union, but McAngus may well be vindicated.

With the victories of Sadiq and its hold on councils shaken but not broken, Labour can’t be said to have started losing, but it belies the issues that face Labour as it stands today. Consider the wider context: Labour stand as the only substantial opposition to a pro-austerity government. A government that had been plagued with the resignation of Ian Duncan Smith and the continued fallout from the Panama papers for David Cameron, on the back of a string of retreats from welfare, to tax credits, disability and the forced conversion of schools to academies. All of this occurring when the Tory party is in the grips of a civil war over Europe. Labour ought to have made substantial gains, not lose them. Corbyn is likely to survive this. The leader is well entrenched in the party, and is liked among the party membership. But even if not a complete disaster, it’s a long way from victory.

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