Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Won, lost and drawn

This month’s election results were a decidedly mixed bag for Labour. Despite a solid win in Wales, progress in England was slow and slid into catastrophic reverse in Scotland, reports Lewis Baston

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Welsh Labour achieved some solid results, winning 28 constituencies and two regional seats to equal its record showing in 2003 of half the seats in the assembly. The Cardiff area was particularly successful for Labour, with the marginal Cardiff North recaptured from the Conservatives – restoring Julie Morgan to elected office after a year’s absence – Vale of Glamorgan defended, and, most surprisingly of all, Cardiff Central regained from the Liberal Democrats. Labour also saw off Liberal Democrat competition in Newport. However, the Conservative vote continued its gradual growth and the party dug in along the north coast at Aberconwy and Clwyd West.

Carwyn Jones returns to power in a commanding position in Welsh politics, having successfully made the transition after 10 years of Rhodri Morgan as first minister. Although the climate for the next five-year term will be different from the previous three terms because money will be scarcer, government in Wales will be the main practical example of Labour in charge in the UK.


The Scottish election result was simply stunning. To win an overall majority under Scotland’s proportional electoral system is extremely difficult, but the Scottish National party managed it with some ease. It was a clear choice in favour of Alex Salmond’s government. While Labour’s vote did not plummet, it did slip further from its weak 2007 results – a poor showing given the slump in the Liberal Democrats’ fortunes – and the huge increase in the SNP vote saw previously solid Labour seats fall for the first time in generations.

There are some harsh lessons from the Scottish election result. One is that voters are now incredibly volatile. The electors of Clydebank, Shettleston and Kirkcaldy are among the hardest-core Labour loyalists one can find, so when all these seats go SNP something remarkable has happened. Labour’s campaign in the elections was bad, its leadership uninspired and Salmond on top form – but something had to have shaken loose to start with for Labour’s lead in the polls at the start of the year to melt away so dramatically. Another lesson is that campaigns and leadership matter. It was a massive personal mandate for Salmond, a party leader with a transformative, catch-all appeal reminiscent of the early Tony Blair.

Perhaps Labour’s greatest failure, which is of more than Scottish importance, is that it failed to articulate a clear reason why people should throw out Salmond’s government and install a Labour one instead. With a few notable exceptions, such as Dumfriesshire and Eastwood where seats were gained from the Tories, Labour seemingly hoped that rallying the tribe of traditional Labour voters against the UK government would see the party through, although the coalition parties were electorally irrelevant in Scotland and every voter knew it. Labour needs a short, compelling narrative in 2015 as to why there needs to be a change of government, and despite all the damage the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are doing, it does not yet have one.

Labour needs to recover quickly in Scotland; the local elections are only a year away. Even more importantly, there will be a referendum of some sort on independence at a time chosen to maximise the chances of a ‘Yes’ vote. While there is not currently a majority for independence, control of the agenda and Salmond’s charismatic leadership mean that the chances of the SNP winning the referendum should not be written off. Labour will be the principal political force on the unionist side of the argument, and needs to be ready in intellectual and organisational terms.

Scottish politics is its own environment and Labour in particular has to resist any temptation to run it from London. Scottish Labour is clearly in need of reinvention, but the impetus for this must come from within Scotland. It is also worth remembering that Scottish Labour achieved some of its best results ever in the May 2010 election. While voting decisions may be wildly different, the voters’ aim in 2010 and 2011 was for centre-left governments at the UK and Scottish levels. It does not mean that Labour should fear huge losses next time Scotland’s Westminster seats are up for election – provided that Scotland actually has Westminster seats in the medium term.

Local elections in England

Local polls nearly always produce something of a patchwork quilt of results: there is a national pattern but with huge variation around the average. This year the task is to assess where the national average is and how good it was for Labour, and to identify and explain the main variations.

Nationally, the Labour performance was fair – neither triumph nor disaster. A net gain of 857 seats was respectable rather than impressive, putting the number of seats a bit below their 1999 level. In terms of national share of the vote, Labour and the Conservatives were about even on 37 per cent, perhaps because the Tories mobilised their supporters to turn out to say ‘No’ to AV. This was an ‘even year’ where Labour and the Conservatives both did well in their heartlands, while the Liberal Democrats suffered everywhere.

A solid performance in many councils in 2011 paves the way for Labour to regain outright control of swathes of local government in 2012 because the seats won in the freak Tory surge of 2008 will come up for re-election. Birmingham, Bradford, Southampton, Plymouth and Cardiff should all fall, giving a healthier red tinge to the map of local government. Even in such harsh times for local government, control of authorities gives Labour a chance to innovate, build alliances and produce new leadership.
Labour still has a huge problem with southern and eastern England. The Conservatives would have held marginal parliamentary seats like Reading West, Harlow and Dover on the basis of the 2011 local results, and their majorities in the Medway town seats would be undented.

There were some impressive examples of ‘red shoots’-Labour gaining seats in areas which have been barren for years. Aylesbury, Tunbridge Wells, Rother, and Vale of White Horse all now have a Labour voice on the council. However, in other areas hoped-for gains failed to materialise and in some places Labour even slipped back from its poor 2007 results. In most areas in the south and east where the Liberal Democrats had assumed the mantle of being the main local non-Tory party, the shift of votes back to Labour in opposition to the coalition was smaller than might have been expected. In St Albans, for instance, Labour’s vote bounced back up strongly in its traditional working-class wards, but only a little in the liberal middle-class areas that comprise most of the city (which Labour won in 1997 and 2001, but where it slipped into third place last year).

The Midlands were very patchy. There were unexpectedly strong results for Labour in several areas, including Birmingham and Walsall, but also in the east Midlands in Nottingham, Leicester and Chesterfield. However, there were poor results in some small town and semi-rural areas like Tamworth and northwest Leicestershire. The differences show the importance of having a Labour MP as a focus for local organisation and morale. Gedling and Broxtowe lie either side of Nottingham: Labour held Gedling in 2010 and followed up with a local landslide in 2011. In contrast, in Broxtowe, narrowly lost in 2010, progress was much weaker in 2011.

Labour’s results in the north of England, particularly its big cities, were something for supporters to celebrate. Gains in terms of councils were at the top end of expectations. Newcastle, thought to be close, was won easily; suburban Bury was a long shot for overall control but – with the aid of drawing the long straw when one ward was tied – Labour managed it. In Manchester the 2011 elections are a historic high point: never before has the party won every single seat, and its vote share was even slightly higher than in the landslide of 1995.

The outcome of the local elections was not a coalition of electoral support that would win Labour a parliamentary majority. The heartlands have been decisively consolidated, but much remains to be done to recover ground in the suburban marginals and southern towns.


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Lewis Baston

is senior research fellow at Democratic Audit and author of the Progress pamphlet, Marginal Difference


  • I live in the East of England and the evidence around me suggests that progress was made although this made little difference to the compositions of council chambers around here. The turnaround in our fortunes is going to take more than twelve months, but continued improvement at the same rate will see gains in 2012 and 2014. Of course I would like a crash, bang wallop improvement, but steady as he goes is likely to be more lasting.

  • I think NW Leicestershire is a poorly chosen example. 11 gains is not to be sniffed at.

  • “There were unexpectedly strong results for Labour in several areas,…. in the east Midlands in ……Chesterfield.” Not unexpectedly for activists in Chesterfield , with Toby Perkins MP at the helm (who engineered the only true Labour gain in the 2011), we created a prefect storm for the Lib Dems and (I think) had the biggest swing against them in the country.

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