The local elections indicate that Labour is pursuing a different electoral strategy post-2017, argues Conor Pope
Ed Miliband’s roadmap to Downing Street was well-documented, and now reads as a series of missed turnings. Target seat one, north Warwickshire. Lost. Two, Thurrock. Lost. Three, Hendon. Lost. Down the list, at number 37, is the one that sticks in the mind for so many activists; that would have meant Labour had won: Nuneaton. Lost. A little further down, we get to places like Pendle, Dudley South, Stevenage. These are not flights of fancy – they are the seats we would have had to win just to have been able to pass legislation without too much of a problem.
We won none of those seats mentioned in 2017. In Nuneaton we gained barely 100 votes on the Tories. It was, to put it in technical terms, a swing of naff all.
But the story of 2017 exists as much off that target list as on it. After 2015, it was clear that that Labour’s next route to power would have to take such ludicrous detours as Kensington and Canterbury even to arrive at a majority of one.
What happened was, of course, remarkable. We achieved the impossible and failed at the necessary; Labour fell at the first hurdle and somersaulted over the final one in the race for No 10.
I could write here that the old truths remain. That Nuneaton, Pendle, Dudley and the rest are the places Labour has to win if Jeremy Corbyn is to become prime minister, and that our failure to show any progress at all in those areas in the local elections is damning.
Would you believe me? I am not sure you should.
2017 suggested that there could be a more improbable route to power. One that we did not expect, but that, given the right circumstances, is nonetheless plausible.
The demographics of the country are changing. Our cities are growing, and the number of social liberals is too. More interestingly, when these people leave the cities for commuter belt towns, they are increasingly keeping their values rather than becoming more conservative, as was previously the case.
This creates different kind of marginal seats and, the argument goes, if you target these voters the electoral landscape becomes completely different. Labour is doing that and, as such, we are not only able to win different types of seats, but we must win them.
Not just Hendon, which would be necessary anyway, but Putney and Cities of Westminster, too. On top of that, we should include Iain Duncan Smith’s Chingford and Boris Johnson’s Uxbridge, which have both been Tory since 1970.
In other circumstances, these would be the big psychological wins in a thumping landslide.
Under our current strategy however, they have different value. The electoral strategy we now pursue requires, for instance, taking out the most popular politician in the country just to get over the line; gaining Uxbridge involves a near-identical swing to Nuneaton.
As such, we have to look at May’s local election results in a very different way. Yes, Nuneaton, Watford and Carlisle saw us lose seats, moving us further away from our traditional path to power. On a uniform swing, the constituency of Walsall North – which went from Labour to Tory in 2017 – would give us an overall majority of one next time. Yet we lost seats on Walsall council, and failed to make gains in Dudley and Pendle.
So what about Wandsworth, Westminster, Barnet, Kensington and Chelsea, and Hillingdon? The reason these councils were briefed as potential gains was not just that they would make a tremendous news story given their Tory stronghold reputations, but because they are host boroughs to key ‘new marginals’. If we are failing to make inroads elsewhere, a good London result is not quite enough. It needs, really, to be our best ever showing in the capital.
Let it not be said that our result in the London locals was not brilliant: it really was. But whether or not it was ‘the best showing since 1971’ is not so important when you consider that in the next general election Labour is looking to win some seats it has not held since 1966.
Corbyn’s target seat list looks very different from Miliband’s, and uniform swing will not be quite sufficient for calculating it. On the basis of the local election result, the maths does not quite add up yet.
Conor Pope is deputy editor of Progress. He tweets @Conorpope
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.