1) It was actually a decent night for Labour
Most of the headlines and front pages have interpreted the elections as an underwhelming night for Corbyn’s Labour, but on closer inspection his party performed solidly.
Labour won more seats than its historic performance in 2014 and had its best night in London since 1971.
If the results were applied to a general election, a Labour-led coalition would be the most likely scenario. And given that a general election feels inevitable over the next year or two, predictions like this warrant a bit more attention than usual.
However, we still have to be really careful when using local election results to predict what might happen in a general election.
There are many differences between the two, most importantly:
2) Older turnout skewed results
As with most local elections, a significantly larger proportion of older voters turned out. This is why the Local Government Association has been working on a strategy to engage young people and ultimately get them to vote in local elections.
But most pundits haven’t taken this on board before their analysis. In lightning-quick fashion, Chukka Ummuna went on the radio to call for a “post-mortem” of Labour’s performance, giving further ammunition to his party’s opponents.
Considering that the Tories’ core voting block turned out in force and the hard data suggests Theresa May has still walked away with a bloody nose, Corbyn’s team will be quietly happy about both yesterday’s results and the prospect of a general election.
Last year was the highest youth turnout in 25 years and there’s no sign of that letting up if a principled, socialist Labour contests the next general election. So the rebound effect would be a lot higher. Sure, Labour didn’t win some of its main target seats – but if you factor in the youth vote (which will turn out at the next general election), they came close enough to take pretty much all of them.
3) Don’t believe the anti-hype: Momentum style #unseat campaigning works
Tuning into the news yesterday morning, you might be forgiven for thinking Labour had a pretty bad night and that their secret weapon – people-powered campaigning based on the methods of Bernie Sanders – turned out to be useless. Establishment darling Dan Hodges tweeted “Momentum have now become a bigger net asset for Theresa May than they are for Jeremy Corbyn.”
Yet despite the best efforts of professional tweeters like Hodges and Tory-leaning news outlets to claim otherwise, in the seats where Momentum invested significant resources, particularly volunteer canvassers going door-to-door, Labour performed very well.
The only criticism I have of Momentum is that it’s still quite London-centric, though with time and more resources I’m sure this will change. But it played out well for Labour yesterday; Momentum helped serve the Tories their worst election result in London since 1971.
There’s no doubt Momentum are about much more than clicktivism. A BBC reporter observed that the campaigning network managed to get four times the number of canvassers out across seats in Portsmouth. They also helped Manchester turn red. The Tories lost control of Trafford, their flagship council of the North, for the first time in 14 years thanks to one of Momentum’s #unseat campaigns.
Not everyone agrees though. Conservative party chairman James Cleverly remarked: “the barrage of hard left activists was actually putting people off of voting Labour.” If this is the best Cleverly can come up with, then his party are in real trouble: casting off a growing campaigning network of ordinary, passionate and genuine people as extremists with little credibility seems to only reinforce the idea that the British establishment is terrified of Momentum’s potential as a long-term force in British politics.
4) Overall turnout is still well below 50%
A high voter turnout is usually the sign of a healthy and functioning democracy, especially at local level. However, it’s safe to assume that Thursday’s overall turnout was still less than 50%.
This means over half of eligible voters didn’t turn out. This is the real elephant in the room: a noisy minority of people follow local politics and local government, and that’s about it.
A large portion of those who did vote, most likely did so for the sake of voting – especially older generations. There are of course many strong arguments why we should always vote – the most compelling to me seems for the sole purpose of ensuring dodgy officials are kept away from any level of power.
But at the of the day, with council budgets set by central government, what lasting difference can local government make?
People, especially those who are working-class, only vote when it feels worth it – I’d always argue that this is in respect of democracy rather than against it. It’s shallow thinking to assume everyone who doesn’t vote doesn’t care; a lot just know it’s gonna end bad, whatever box they put a cross in.
As soon as local councils can provide fresh, innovative and transparent ways of governing at local level – as is the case with Preston council – then perhaps turnout would go up. And without more devolution (giving more powers to councils), this might take a while.