6 May 2016

Elections: What do they mean for Labour? And for Europe?

Jeremy Corbyn wasn’t taking any chances with his morning photo op. I understand it was decided a couple of days ago that he would train it up to Sheffield Brightside to bask in the somewhat predictable hold of a parliamentary seat which Labour won in 2010 with a 34 per cent lead over second place Ukip.

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Mr Corbyn, speaking in Sheffield a moment ago, said Labour “clung on… and grew support in a lot of places” last night “because our party is standing up for the steel industry… against the grotesque levels of inequality”.

Mr Corbyn mucked up the expectations management when he accidentally said Labour wouldn’t lose seats in these contests. Turns out he wasn’t that far wrong when it came to the English council elections. But, his critics in the party are saying, big hairy deal.

These are gift moments to kick a government and Labour isn’t inducing enough people to do that. This year the gift was gilded with Tory policies falling apart and the party’s MPs gouging each others’ eyes out over Europe.

Still the dial (in England) didn’t really move. In Wales it moved in the wrong direction, and in Scotland something fairly historic happened as the party was pummelled into third place. Ben Page of Ipsos MORI says that means Labour needs to be 13 per cent ahead of the Tories in England in the next general election to win power.

Diane Abbott, doing the rounds of the studios on behalf of the leadership, has been sticking to the script that the party should be judged against the share of the vote last year in the general election, not the number of council seats gained/lost.

That’s a new metric, especially devised for this occasion by the Labour election team, developed safe in the knowledge that the national equivalent share of the vote will be marginally up on Ed Miliband’s general election tally. But in local elections you’re meant to out-perform your general election tally by a fat margin.

The leadership line, repeated by Diane Abbott this morning, is that that’s an old metric that doesn’t take account of the “fragmented” state of UK politics, with nationalist forces of different types on the march in the different parts of the UK.

Here are the swings which Labour managed in key weather-vane areas of England. Thanks to Lewis Baston for crunching the numbers:
table

The pattern of the swing is still puzzling some. Labour did okay in the southern towns, relative both to 2012 and 2015, where performance might’ve been expected to decline. It could well be because Tory voters who were fired up to turn out when frightened out of their beds by Lynton Crosby in the 2015 general election just didn’t bother yesterday when the stakes seemed small.

With all the usual giant caveats, on these swings Labour looks to be slightly ahead in towns like Plymouth and Southampton.

(Dudley, lost to Labour, fell on a tiny number of votes. The party lost one ward by three votes and another by 13. If nine votes had switched in the right wards, then Labour would still be in control.)

I just spoke to Nigel Farage and found that he was hardly punching the air with joy over his old foe Neil Hamilton’s victory in Wales. He’d done his best to keep Mr Hamilton off the candidates’ list.

I asked if he was “thrilled to see Neil Hamilton” elected to a public position. He said: “Well he’s back after 20 years.” I said: “No thanks to you.” Mr Farage said: “Oh look, I’ve worked with Neil in Ukip, he’s been a member for nearly 15 years. I get on with him socially.”

“Professionally?” I asked. “He’s got a chance to prove himself professionally,” Mr Farage replied. My colleague, Andy Davies, caught the Hamiltons just after the victory, Christine Hamilton in tears and Neil Hamilton referring to his victory as “momentous”.

Nigel Farage sees a read-across from last night’s results to the EU referendum. He says that his second place (usually very distant second) to Labour in the north of England means that his side could win over a lot of Labour folk in the June referendum.

I’ve asked all the main political analysts who pop up on TV at this time of year, or write analysis in the newspapers, whether they can see any read-across at all to the referendum. To a man (I’m afraid they were all men), they said they that they could see none whatsoever.

Even the fairly grotty low turnout isn’t a predictor of June turnout, they think. It could be people are “saving themselves,” one said. “Given how heavily the EU referendum vote intention cuts across party preferences, the answer has to be ‘no connection’,” one said.

Two call-outs to the polling booth in close proximity don’t normally go down with electorates and can depress turnout but the more important of the two is usually the one that comes first. In this case, many will see the more important as the 23 June vote, so low turnout now doesn’t necessarily foreshadow low turnout in June.

For those who can’t wait, you can follow voting progress on London here. It’s looking like Sadiq Khan is reasonably ahead on first ballot and possibly so far ahead that second preferences when they are allocated will not alter the picture.

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