How successful was Labour in the 2019 local elections?

A month ago, I set out my annual benchmarks of what would constitute a good or bad performance in the 2019 local elections. So how did Labour do against the various measures?

Firstly, the party screwed up the expectations game. If the party nationally had said something along the lines of what I did in my article – explaining that these seats were last fought on a high turnout general election day, and that the areas of the country that are most pro-Corbyn and anti-Brexit weren’t voting and therefore, as I put it, “Labour will be fighting a primarily defensive battle in the 2019 local elections, looking to minimise net losses rather than make net gains” – they could have made the outcome look a lot more acceptable. Instead there was nonsense such as John McDonnell, presumably briefed by advisers, floating the idea on polling day of 400 Labour seat gains, which made the eventual losses look even worse than they were. The projections of hundreds of Labour gains by the main psephologists who do annual forecasts were never properly rebutted or downplayed by Labour.

I suggested eleven councils where Labour might lose control. Of those vulnerable areas, Labour did well to hold Crawley, Plymouth, Rossendale, Southampton and Telford & The Wrekin (where it gained nine seats), all of which are also important in general elections. But the party lost Bolton (from having exactly half the seats, so technically NOC last time), Cannock Chase, Cheshire West & Chester, Hartlepool, Lancaster and North East Derbyshire. Surprise additional losses were Bolsover, Burnley, Darlington, Middlesbrough, Stockton and Wirral.

However, it wasn’t all one-way traffic. I suggested that Labour might gain control of seven councils. Of those, we only gained Gravesham, though picked up another four that I hadn’t predicted (Amber Valley, Calderdale, High Peak and Trafford). Unfortunately the other six that I name-checked saw Labour going backwards, sometimes very badly.

In the mayoral elections, both of the two that I highlighted – Copeland and Middlesbrough – went Independent rather than Labour.

Labour’s national vote share (extrapolated to take account of areas with no elections this year) is estimated by the BBC to be just 28%. That’s down 8% on 2018, worse than any year of Ed Miliband’s leadership, and equal to the very poor results a month before the 2017 general election. As I said last month, an opposition party needs to be ahead in local elections, as the electoral cycle favours the party out of power nationally in mid-term local elections, and this had us level-pegging with a very damaged Conservative Party.

I make the total raw number of councillors Labour has in the whole UK (including those who didn’t have to contest their seats this year) about 6,323. We are continuing to slip down, reversing gains we made during the 2011-2014 period. Previous cycles tell us that over the lifetime of this parliament we need to get to over 8,000 if we are going to win a general election.

We lost a net 84 councillors, making this only the fifth time since 1979 that, in opposition, we have lost seats in local elections not held on the same day as a general election. This is an unusual state of affairs: opposition parties usually gain council seats. It is notable that three of the five occasions when it has happened were 2016, 2017 and now 2019.

In terms of control of councils, we are down a net six, taking us to 99 Labour-controlled councils. This is the lowest number since 2011, and 21 down on the peak in 2014.

Looking at whether the gains or losses were in areas that are marginal in a general election, the analyst Ian Warren has assessed the results on Thursday in terms of the 18 most marginal parliamentary constituencies that had elections this year. His figures show Labour gaining Broxtowe, Norwich North, Telford and Thurrock, but losing Barrow, Bedford, Canterbury, Keighley and Peterborough. Further down the list of both defensive and attack marginals, the picture is equally patchy.

Related to this, I suggested looking for Labour seat gains in four areas where there was an unexpected swing to us in the 2017 general election. Canterbury saw seven seats gained, Peterborough three, Portsmouth one, but in Bedford we lost three seats.

I don’t usually write up the differences in performance regionally but this time they were so stark that I’m recording them. This was the net change in number of Labour councillors by region (with the caveat that some regions such as the East Midlands have a lot more district councils electing every councillor this year, which exaggerates their impact in this table):

South East +85 seats
East +19 seats
West Midlands Zero net change
South West -3 seats
Yorkshire & Humberside 23 seats
North West -35 seats
East Midlands -45 seats
North -84 seats
London, Scotland and Wales No local elections this year

This isn’t the article for a lengthy analysis of the impact of Labour’s ambivalent Brexit stance on our local election performance, other than to state the obvious that with our vote share falling and us losing seats at the same time that the Tories shed over 1,300, the current stance neither satisfies people who want Brexit nor people who want Remain/a second referendum. Hence, shocking losses of seats in Leave-voting places like Ashfield and North East Derbyshire, but no sweeping gains in Remain areas to compensate for this; instead, it was the Greens and Lib Dems who made dramatic gains.

The results in the South East and East are fascinating – we gained ground in both Kent and Essex, which voted heavily for Brexit, in stark comparison to the results in equally pro-Brexit former coalfield communities and small towns in the Midlands and North. One aspect may be the continued migration from London to the neighbouring regions being driven by the differential in housing costs, which is sending both Labour voters and activists out into areas where they were previously thin on the ground, hence seat gains in places like Folkestone and Worthing.

Finally, as with the seat losses in Haringey in 2018, authorities with very high profile infighting and deselections of incumbent Labour councillors by Momentum saw Labour do disproportionately badly – the cases this year being loss of control in Wirral and net losses in Brighton & Hove, which contrasts with almost all the other south coast councils from Bournemouth all the way round to Ipswich.

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