Local Elections 2019: Update – the morning after the night before

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Good morning. The LabourList local elections 2019 liveblog has been running since 10pm, and it’s still going. If you’ve not been following our updates overnight, you’re in luck as I’m going to sum up the situation so far now. We’re not halfway there yet: just 111 of 248 councils have declared. Labour has lost control of two councils compared to 2015 – Hartlepool (which was already under no overall control due to very recent resignations) and Bolsolver (Dennis Skinner territory, now NOC) – and we’re down 79 seats overall. The Tories have lost control of 16 councils and have a net loss of nearly 450 seats.

It’s been a terrible night for the Tories and a disappointing one for Labour, while Lib Dems, Greens and Independents can claim victory. It’s clear that voters are punishing the main parties at the polls, and the phrase ‘a plague on both your houses’ has never been used so frequently than it has over the last 12 hours on TV. We shouldn’t overlook the importance of local issues, particularly planning controversies that have benefitted small parties and anti-development Independents. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look as if Labour has been very successful in shifting the focus of voters from those concerns or national priorities to the injustice of austerity and the idea that they should punish Tories in response. That was always going to be tough to achieve.

Let’s consider the context of these results first. Call it spin if you like: there are some crucial factors to take into account that are largely being ignored by mainstream commentators. With nothing going on in Wales or London (except by-elections), many of these councils are in rural areas and Conservative strongholds – where Labour is weakest. These seats were last contested at the 2015 general election, when Lib Dems had their worst ever council performance, and that was always going to be reflected in strong gains for them this year. And, as ever, Labour has lost the expectation management competition. The Tories have been busy promoting an entirely unrealistic figure of 1,000 seats lost, which didn’t match up with public polling (or Labour’s private forecasts, I’m told), and almost every pundit has been happy to repeat the obviously ridiculous Tory spin. Be wary of comments along the lines of ‘the Tories have done badly but it could have been much worse’.

This was always going to be a difficult set of elections, as top Labour figures will be emphasising today. There are bits of good news. Labour has won control of Trafford, a key target. The Tories have lost control of Peterborough, which is a positive sign ahead of the parliamentary by-election – Lisa Forbes, standing for Labour on June 6th, will be pleased. Progress has been made in Medway, where the Labour group is at its biggest since 1997, gained a couple of councillors in Southampton and Luke Pollard is very happy in Plymouth. But we have lost ground in ones-to-watch including Ashfield, Bolton, Derby, the Wirral, Walsall and Swindon. This is not good at all, with Labour particularly shedding votes in the North. In Stoke-on-Trent, Labour lost five council seats, and local MPs Gareth Snell and Ruth Smeeth did not hold back in attacking Labour’s pro-public vote stance.

Far from benefiting from the Brexit chaos overseen by this Tory government, Labour has suffered. You’d think identifying this as the problem would help, but quite the opposite is true. The only consensus forming within the party is that these results show Labour’s ‘constructive ambiguity’ Brexit strategy has run out of road – and yet both camps will use the evidence to back up their own side of the argument. In other words, everyone is digging in. Remain party gains? Labour backers of another referendum say: we need to be more anti-Brexit! Losses in heavily Leave areas? Let’s pass a deal and move on! (John McDonnell’s tweet is already making waves.) The only thing everyone can agree on is that Brexit must be “sorted” – but people are now even further apart on whether that means implementing it or scrapping it.

Results are still pouring in and we can look forward to big Tory losses later. Keep refreshing our liveblog for updates and analysis.

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