YESTERDAY Theo Bertram, an adviser in Downing Street under New Labour, blogged on the art of spinning local-election results. He pointed to the party’s grim showing in 2007, when it lost 505 seats and the opposition Conservatives gained 911, as proof of the wonders that successfully setting expectations and framing results can work. Having set the bar for the Tories ludicrously high, on that election night Labour’s talking heads repeated and repeated the claim that the opposition had fallen short and that their own side had avoided its worst-case scenario. They banged on about the Tories’ failure to take Bury, an arbitrary and unrealistic yardstick. Sure enough, references to Labour’s “bad-but-not-disastrous” results, and the Conservatives’ damning result in Bury, popped up all over the news coverage.
Such is the context in which Labour’s performance in yesterday’s local and regional elections must be understood. At the time of blogging the party has lost 24 seats on English councils (to five Tory gains). This is abysmal. Not just disappointing or a “mixed picture”. Abysmal. How so? Opposition parties do disproportionately well in local elections, which give voters a free kick at the government, especially outside general-election years and when the government in question is divided or unpopular. And they often do especially well when they have a newish leader of whom voters are not yet bored or sick. In other words, local elections like yesterday’s are as good as it gets for Labour under Jeremy Corbyn. In his first set of local elections Ed Miliband, who went on to lead the party to a crashing defeat at the general election, presided over 857 gains. The equivalent figure for Tony Blair, the last Labour leader to take the party from opposition into government, was 1,807 gains.
To be fair, Labour did well in the 2012 elections, the last time the council seats in play yesterday were up for grabs. That ruled out Blair-esque numbers of gains. But Marcus Roberts, a former Labour strategist now at YouGov, has observed that the three previous rounds of elections in these seats (2000, 2004 and 2008) had all been terrible for the party, and even in 2012 it did not fully recoup its losses. There was plenty of room yesterday for Labour to made decent gains. Taking such factors into account and looking at the broader historical relationship between local- and general-election performance, Mr Roberts estimated that, to be on track for a national win in 2020, Labour needed to pick up 300 or more seats.
This it has conspicuously failed to do. It has lost ground in every nation of Great Britain: England, Scotland and Wales. Particularly damning is the picture in Nuneaton, the Middle England marginal whose solid backing for the Tories last year became emblematic of Mr Miliband’s shortcomings and defeat. There the Labour-to-Conservative swing yesterday was 11 points, greater even than at the general election. Meanwhile Labour’s third place north of the border is not just a testament to the Scottish Conservatives’ superb leader, Ruth Davidson, but also to the utter failure of her rivals’ bid to win back votes from the Scottish National Party by tacking left under Mr Corbyn. And then there are the dark indications, from local patterns in the results, that Jewish voters are turning away from the party over its recent anti-Semitism scandals.
Yesterday’s elections were a triumph for the Tories, who—at the point in the cycle least favourable to them and when they are tearing themselves apart over Europe—secured not just improbable gains in England but a comeback in a part of Britain where they have long been written off. For the same reasons, Labour’s results spell doom for the party at general elections. And yet these plain facts are curiously absent from much of the news coverage of the results. All over, it seems, are phrases like “holding its ground”, “passing the test”, “messier than predicted” and “bad-but-not-disastrous” (yes, that old chestnut).
Why? Because—incompetent though it is in most respects—Labour’s leadership did a fine job of lowering expectations. Apart from one gaffe by Mr Corbyn (he said he expected to gain seats, before a spinner corrected this from a prediction to an aspiration) it consistently promoted the notion that the party would see triple-digit losses, that to expect gains would be unreasonable and that the party might lose the London mayoral election (the result of which, almost certainly a solid Labour win, is due tonight). The success of this strategy is borne out in headlines painting results that should strike fear into Labourite hearts as par-for-the-course. Emma Reynolds, one of the few moderate MPs with the guts to burst her party’s bubble, was bombarded with abuse from Corbyn supporters on social media when, this morning, she pointed out that these were “not good enough”. Labour is firmly on track to do worse at the 2020 election than it did last year. Commentary and analysis perpetuating the delusion that this is not so are doing the Conservative Party a giant favour.
Update: Since this post was published Mr Khan has, as expected, secured enough votes to become London’s new mayor. Though a poor reflection of Mr Corbyn’s electability, this will take some of the pressure off Labour’s leader. A full write-up of the result is here.