In terms of expectation management there was a clear winner in the 2016 local elections: the Labour party. Faced with predictions of 150 losses in council seats, to come out with fewer than 20 encouraged many of us to breathe a sigh of relief that things could have been much worse. The media narrative the next day was that our performance was ‘better than expected’, a sure sign that the media were picking up our lines and not those of the Conservative party.
Yes, things could have been worse, but even with gains in some marginal constituencies such as Ipswich, results elsewhere have left us in a position from which no opposition party has ever gone on to win a general election.
The report also calls into question any strategy based solely on picking up non-voters to lead us to victory. Backing up the feeling many of us experienced here in Bradford, turnout was poor, and actually lower than the corresponding election in 2012.
In Windhill and Wrose, a ward with a large working-class electorate which I have represented since 2012, turnout was down two per cent from my previous election 2012, from 35 per cent to 33 per cent, the equivalent of more than 200 voters staying at home who went out to vote in 2012.
If we were successful in mobilising non-voters turnout should have been up, not down. As a former Labour party staffer frequently reminds me, they are called non-voters because they do not vote. And as the Fabian Society has previously stated, there is no route back to power for the Labour party that does not involve picking up people who have previously voted Conservative.
Of course, where we took this approach we won the biggest prize of the day in the London mayoral election. Sadiq Khan scored a fantastic victory with a broad coalition of support against a divisive campaign by Zac Goldsmith and the Conservative party. Nonetheless, Baston notes that areas where Labour performed above expectations tend to be metropolitan, or London-lite, in their make-up, while we did much worse in smaller towns with more aspirational working-class voters.
If our weaknesses in the last 10 or more years have been a shoring up of the vote in metropolitan cities while the working-class core vote has gradually hollowed out then this process appears to be accelerating, not slowing.
To be clear, this has been a challenge for the Labour party going back way beyond the current leadership, so to lay all claims of working-class decline at their door is as daft as claiming the results are somehow purely the legacy of New Labour.
Perhaps the most symbolic news from the local elections came not with any specific result but from the news that Gillian Duffy, the northern grandmother who Gordon Brown referred to as ‘a sort of bigoted woman’, has resigned her membership of the party. A working-class party member who could withstand being called a bigot by a Labour prime minister now feels sufficiently alienated from the party to resign her membership.
To win a majority in England again we have to address our decline in our industrial heartlands while building on the broad coalition of support modelled by Khan in London. Anything less will bring another heart-breaking defeat in 2020.
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