Jeremy Corbyn today launched Labour’s campaign for the local elections taking place in England, Scotland and Wales on Thursday 4 May. He did so amidst a highly gloomy forecast for his party’s prospects in these contests.
Nationally, the party is polling consistently between 13 and 19 points behind the Conservatives. The experts are united in their assessment: it will be a bad night for Labour. Professor John Curtice predicts a 12-point swing from Labour to the Conservatives. Tory psephologist Lord Robert Hayward estimates Labour losses of “upwards of 125” seats. Local election gurus Rallings and Thrasher are predicting losses of around 50 seats for the party in England.
In Scotland, the situation appears even more bleak. Having already suffered crushing defeats at Westminster and Holyrood elections in 2015 and 2016 respectively, 2017 looks set to complete a miserable hat trick of disastrous results for Scottish Labour, robbing them of their last footholds on power in Scotland. The last time these Councils were elected in 2012, Labour were virtually neck and neck with the SNP on 31%. They are now polling at around half that level and Professor Curtice believes the party could lose overall control of all current Labour-majority authorities in Scotland, including the highly symbolic Glasgow City Council, for so long a bastion of Scottish Labour strength.
It is a long-standing expectation that the opposition makes gains in mid-term local elections – usually in the hundreds of seats. At the first local elections contested by Labour under the leadership of Michael Foot – so often the low benchmark against which Corbyn is assessed – Labour’s net gain was 988 seats. Last year, in his first local elections as leader, Corbyn oversaw a net loss of 18 seats. All indications are that the net loss will be even greater this time around. This is not what mid-term elections are supposed to look like for opposition leaders. Even for those who have underperformed, the criticism has tended to be ‘they should be making more gains than that’ rather than ‘they’re going backwards’.
So what can Corbyn do about it? And if the answer is ‘nothing’, what does the future hold for his leadership?
Corbyn’s speech at the launch event in Nottinghamshire struck a defiant tone. He painted a picture of a Conservative government “running our country down”, citing an NHS in crisis, rising homelessness, closing Sure Start centres, rising class sizes in schools, police budgets being cut and a looming social care crisis. Labour – with a quarter of a million new members – is “standing up for you,” he said, “in Westminster and in every community across the country”.
Whether you agree or disagree with Corbyn’s diagnosis, or with his claim that Labour is standing up to the government, the fact is that the message is plainly not getting through to voters.
Partly, the problem is that the Brexit issue is becoming so all-encompassing in how the media is covering politics that it is almost inevitable that Labour becomes somewhat marginalised. Other than seeking concessions on how the process will be scrutinised and setting out ‘tests’ against which Labour will judge the Brexit deal, there is no escaping the fact that negotiating Britain’s exit is a matter for government, not opposition. Meanwhile Labour’s stated desire to represent neither only the 52% nor the 48% but the 100% runs the distinct risk of seeming in fact to represent nobody.
Corbyn’s speech today largely avoided the Brexit issue and he is not necessarily wrong to imagine that, at local elections, voters will have more ‘bread and butter’ domestic issues in mind. However these elections are losing the battle for airtime to all things Brexit, and gaining cut-through on a platform which focuses on cuts to local services and the need for an alternative approach will be difficult.
If Corbyn cannot find a way to either contribute in a more meaningful way to the Brexit debate, or else more effectively change the narrative in such a way as to train the public’s eye on domestic policy issues, it is hard to imagine Labour’s current difficulties easing.
And if the forecasts are correct and Labour takes another backwards step on May 4th, might Corbyn finally decide enough is enough? We can expect a renewed clamour from Labour ‘moderates’ for Corbyn to consider his position if indeed the results go as badly as expected. However, at least in the interim it seems unlikely that he will heed these calls, at least until Labour Party conference when the left of the party will seek to pass the ‘McDonnell amendment’ which would make it easier for a preferred successor to make it onto the ballot. If the PLP again seeks to oust Corbyn before we get to that point, the evidence is not yet strong enough to suggest that the party membership would vote any differently to how they did last year or the year before.
The local elections look set to intensify Labour’s woes. But the end may not yet be in sight.
Main image by Garry Knight – https://www.flickr.com/photos/garryknight/