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Saturday, 6 May 2017

May council triumph doesn't make June a done deal

By David Hough

I waited to write this third blog until we had all the results in from the County Council elections. As I said a couple of weeks ago, while the results are interesting, it would be unwise for people to get too excited, or too depressed about them.

This is because as local elections turnout was considerably lower than it will be in the General Election, and that big cities like London, Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds were not voting in their urban areas.

There is an additional aspect which makes these elections difficult to read is that people often vote differently locally to nationally. Therefore, it’s possible that areas where the Conservatives did well that traditionally return a Labour MP, will still do so on June 8th.

However, these local elections, being so close to the General Election can act as a guide, and there is no doubt the Conservatives will take a lot of confidence going forward, that they can, indeed, get that big majority that Theresa May is seeking.

The Conservative made over 560 gains, many of them deep into what was considered natural Labour territory, and, perhaps even more tellingly, over 150 in Scotland, and just short of a 100 in Wales. So, this was not just an English victory for the Tories, they suddenly can look at being a party of the union again.

To confirm the current Tory domination, they also won four of the six Metro Mayors being contested for the first time, including victories in the Tees and West Midlands. It is true that in Greater Manchester, former Education Secretary, Andy Burnham won by a landslide, he very much ran as himself, and wasn’t willing to have Jeremy Corbyn play any part in his campaign.

There can be no doubt that the Labour Party had a disastrous night, losing nearly 400 councillors, and in Scotland slipping to a poor third behind the SNP and the Conservatives. Mr. Corbyn described the results as ‘disappointing’ but that severely underestimates the seriousness of the situation.

Disappointing is Sion Simon just failing to be elected as the mayor in the West Midlands. Disappointing is the Liberal Democrats failing to make big strides forward they’d been predicted to. They made gains in some areas, but lost about three dozen seats overall.

That was disappointing. Labour’s losses were cataclysmic, and have given the Conservatives some momentum to take into the final five weeks of the campaign, which will almost certainly lead to them increasing their support in June’s General Election.

What Labour do about this situation is a tricky one. Many who oppose the Corbyn leadership believe that just dumping him now (although there’s no way to make him do so at this stage), and replacing him with Deputy leader Tom Watson would drastically improve the party’s prospects.

But I think the die is cast, and if the election defeat is as bad as many believe, the party will need to regroup, and decide, at leisure, the best course of action. Jeremy Corbyn has not indicated he would stand aside, in fact the opposite, and so those remaining MPs who oppose him will need to make some decisions. Whatever they do, it is not going to be easy.

However, as bad as the results were for Labour, they at least have something to build on. As disappointing as the results were for the Liberal Democrats, if these results were repeated in June, they would double their MPs, and a small step forward is better than steps backwards.

The biggest losers in the County Council elections were UKIP. They started the evening with around 145 council seats, and ended it with a solitary councilor left, in Burnley. Results like this aren’t merely disastrous, they could be apocalyptic. It appears that now that the referendum has been won by the Leave side, that many feel UKIP’s purpose has been fulfilled. Many of their voters returned to the Conservative Party, but (and this worrying for Labour), it appears that ex-Labour voters who switched to UKIP, have gone straight to the Tories.

Overall then, the only party who can really be satisfied with Thursday’s results are the Conservatives. Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and UKIP all have thinking to do. Some more than others, and only the next few weeks will demonstrate if they’re able to recover any ground.

As for the rest of the campaign, it’s proceeded fairly sedately. Constituency parties are continuing to select candidates, especially in seats that are considered unwinnable. The sudden calling of the election has left local parties with not much time, and finding people prepared to take time out, at short notice, in a hopeless cause, is proving difficult.

Mrs. May has continued to avoid meeting too many people, while Mr. Corbyn continues to meet people who support him. So, neither of them are actually getting out there meeting the voters.

Tim Farron has been, and this week discovered the perils, as a Malcolm Baker confronted him in Oxford over the Liberal Democrat’s less than enthusiastic embracing of Brexit. To his credit, Mr. Farron dealt with the situation calmly, used it to speak to the cameras about Mrs. May’s lack of engagement, and spoke about Mr. Baker’s right to voice his opinion. This earned Mr. Farron a handshake from Mr. Baker, and thanks for letting him let off steam. This probably won’t help the Liberal Democrats in the election, but it promotes Tim Farron in a positive way.

Parliament was officially dissolved on Wednesday, and now the County elections are out of the way, the campaign will really pick up pace. Prepare yourselves for five weeks of wall-to-wall coverage, much of which will generate more heat than light.

By the end of this week all the election candidates in all constituencies will be known, and the leaflets will start to pile up, which will provide plenty of paper for recycling. Expect to see the party stalls in your high streets from next weekend, as they attempt to win your vote.

As a former candidate, my admiration goes out to those giving up time, and in many cases, money to stand. So please treat them all with respect, and give them the opportunity to make their case.

David was Labour PPC for Rayleigh and Wickford in 2015