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Even before the polls had closed, the attacks from Corbyn’s opponents had started. It didn’t matter what the actual results were – the narrative had been set already. Lord Kinnock, that fount of wisdom on electoral success, opined in Prospect magazine that the leadership’s policies ‘are an impediment to getting the kind of support we need’. Neil Coyle MP pre-briefed BBC Newsnight that Labour was ‘moving further away’ from election victory under 2020 under Corbyn.
The pollsters, influenced by assumptions of the Westminster bubble, projected substantial losses for Labour. Peter Kellner spoke of a ‘consensus’ that 150-200 seats would be lost. Corbyn’s Labour would lose control of a slew of councils it previously ran. The party’s internal number-cruncher Greg Cook was issuing similar warnings. They had already concluded that Labour had retreated into its ideological comfort zone, and decided to play primarily to its core vote – with adverse consequences in the key electoral battlegrounds in the South and East.
When the results came through, this pre-cooked story did not hold up. The losses on the scale predicted simply failed to materialise.
The verdict passed by voters across the country was substantially more positive. Far from having collapsed, Labour’s national vote share was up on that achieved by Ed Miliband in last year’s general election. Of course further progress still has to be made if we are to regain power in 2020. But the direction is generally positive, even despite the slew of media attacks, and dissent from the inside the parliamentary Labour Party.
Given that the corresponding local election results in 2012 represented a high water mark – as voters took the opportunity to vote against both of the coalition parties – it was always going to be difficult to make substantial advances this time round. MPs arguing Labour needed to be making hundreds of gains were setting a deliberate impossible target to paint a false picture of failure. They key is to be more successful than before in terms of sustaining forward momentum throughout the government’s term and building a platform for a general election victory.
In actuality, Labour had a good deal to celebrate in England. London elected Sadiq Khan, with 57 per cent of first and second preference votes. The election of a Muslim mayor with such a handsome majority represented a clear rejection of the vile racist smear campaign run by allies of Lynton Crosby for the Tories. The London Assembly results saw Labour take the constituency seat of Merton and Wandsworth, previously a Tory stronghold. No adverse effect there.
Elsewhere, too, Labour performed better than expect outside its heartlands, retaining control of councils such as Southampton, Crawley, Hastings, Exeter, Nuneaton, and Redditch. In Worcester, previously regarded as a ‘barometer’ seat in Middle England, Labour made gains to deny the Tories a majority.
One of the few disappointing results in England was Labour’s loss of Dudley council to no overall control. Here the local Labour MP, a loud-mouthed enemy of the Corbyn leadership without care for the consequences of his own irresponsible behaviour, had never ceased to publicly attack his own party leadership and undermine the credibility of his own party’s policies. Dudley Labour councillors can feel rightly aggrieved that their MP has undermined their own electoral fortunes. This demonstrates the need for the party to unite ensure that hostile elements within the parliamentary Labour Party are confronted, isolated and effectively silenced going forward.
There are no grounds for complacency. Holding our ground was merely the first prerequisite for extending our support, and picking up the momentum we’ll need as we approach 2020 – or earlier, if the civil war in the Tories escalates in the wake of the EU referendum. If Labour fails to recover some ground in Scotland, the gains needed in England to take back power will be all the greater. Yet the Corbyn leadership has proved popular in large parts of the country, including those marginals we’ll need to win back. The Cassandras have been left looking foolish. It’s now time for all sections of the party to unite behind our leader. Those giving ammunition to our opponents must be told that they will not be allowed to wreck our chances in future.
This piece was first published by Labour Briefing.