No safe space for Labour: What the local elections tell us

Even where Labour held on to its councillors, the Tories are showing signs of taking parliamentary seats
Even where Labour held on to its councillors, the Tories are showing signs of taking parliamentary seats

By Chaminda Jayanetti

Last week's local elections have left Labour in a terrible state, losing hundreds of councillors to the rampant Tories and missing out on mayoralties in the South West, the West Midlands and, most improbably, the Tees Valley.

But what do the ward-level results tell us about the party's prospects? Could things be worse than they seem? Or are there seats where Labour locally is bucking the trend? The only way to find out is through a deep dive into the data.

A few primers


These seats were last contested in 2013 when Labour was ahead in the polls, unlike at the 2015 general election. Just because the Tories might have secured a five percent swing in a local election from their 2013 vote, that does not equate to being on course to secure a five percent swing from 2015 for the corresponding House of Commons seat.

Also, local elections have features absent from general elections - people aren't voting for a popular local MP or a "strong and stable" national government, there are credible independent candidates floating about in certain areas, and major parties may not field candidates in certain wards. These results are evidence of what may happen next month, but they are not proof.

These results focus on England; the implications for Welsh seats have already been covered elsewhere. John Curtice explains here what the results mean in Scotland. I've not read too much into the mayoral elections, where personalities play a greater role. And you can take it as read that Labour is falling well, well behind in the Tory-held target seats it will one day need to win to form a government.

A few notes on methodology are at the bottom of this article.

Ultra marginals

Cambridge (Cambridgeshire):

Leave vote 26.3%. A Lib Dem seat until 2015, when left-leaning MP Julian Huppert was felled by Labour's Daniel Zeichner with a tiny 1.2% majority. This is the Lib Dems' number one target next month.

On the face of it, the Lib Dems made little headway here - Labour actually increased their share of local councillors. But behind those headline results, the Lib Dems have piled on a lot of votes compared to 2013 - a near-eight point gap has become a two point gap. Their support has been taken from all quarters - Labour, Tories, the Greens. Labour's vote share has only been propped up by gains in a couple of wards. With the popular Huppert re-standing, a tiny Labour majority, and a heavy pro-Remain sentiment in the city, the Lib Dems are looking set to regain this seat next month - as long as Farron doesn't screw it up for them.

Barrow and Furness (Cumbria):

Leave vote 57.3%. An obvious Tory target, whose centrist MP John Woodcock sits on a 795-vote majority from 2015.

This seat, which includes part of the ward of High Furness (I've halved the votes from there and italicised them), is heading straight to the Tories - an 18% Labour lead four years ago has turned into a seven per cent Tory lead now. The Tories should win this next month without breaking sweat.

Newcastle-under-Lyme (Staffordshire):

Leave vote 61.6%. Labour since 1919, but now with a wafer thin 650-vote majority that leaves Paul Farrelly needing a miracle.

These are terrible results for Labour. A ten-point lead has turned into a six-point deficit. The seat looks practically indefensible. Tory gain.

Marginals

Copeland (Cumbria):

Leave vote 59.2%. Held by Labour in 2015 with a 6.5% majority, the Tories won it comfortably in a by-election earlier this year after the centrist Labour MP Jamie Reed decided to quit parliament. Trudy Harrison will defend this seat months after winning it.

Like Barrow, this is a nuclear-influenced marginal in Cumbria, and like Barrow it's turning blue. Gillian Troughton, the Labour by-election and general election candidate here, lost her council seat last week as the Tories hoovered up Labour wards.

North East Derbyshire (Derbyshire):

Leave vote 62.1%. A Labour seat since 1935, Natascha Engel did well to hold on in 2015 but is defending a small four per cent majority with a 16% Ukip vote.

This is a disaster for Labour. A 23% lead from 2013 has turned into a near-six per cent reverse - a massive swing of around 15% to the Tories. It's not just Ukip voters going Conservative - Labour's own vote share has fallen sharply. This seat looks more than lost.

Bishop Auckland (Durham):

Leave vote 63.3%. Held by Labour for all but four years since 1918, Helen Goodman's majority is 8.9%, with a Ukip vote of 17.8%. If the Tories take this seat, it will be part of a historic realignment of the British political map.

Analysing these results isn't easy - as with many Durham seats, there are plenty of independents winning thousands of votes between them, and the Conservatives have often chosen not to stand candidates in certain wards (marked as DNS in the table).

What we can see, however, is that a 30% Labour lead has shrunk to ten per cent - that's a big swing, only a small part of which is explained by the Tories fielding more candidates this time around. Thousands of Labour votes have gone to independent candidates - what these voters do at the general election will be crucial. But the Conservatives are on the march here and with a strong Brexit sentiment, Goodman is at risk.

Burnley (Lancashire):

Leave vote 64.7%. A surprise gain for the Lib Dems in 2010 which they lost in 2015. Julie Cooper has an 8.2% majority, with the Tories back in fourth.

Ukip took their one seat of the night here and the Tories also made headway - Labour is losing votes in this heavily pro-Brexit seat, but they're not all going in one direction and they're certainly not going back to the Lib Dems. As long as non-Labour voters are similarly split at the general election, this should be a Labour hold.

Chorley (Lancashire):

Leave vote 56.7%. Lindsay Hoyle could be the next Commons speaker this summer - or he could be out of a job. His 8.8% majority is smaller than Ukip's vote share.

In 2013 Labour won three seats from  the Tories. Last week the Tories took them back. Nevertheless, the Labour vote share grew, keeping a healthy if shrinking lead over the Conservatives. Labour seats with sub-ten per cent majorities are easy to write off in this election, especially in Leave areas. If Hoyle can lever his personal vote he has a chance, but national polling suggests he has an uphill struggle.

Lancaster and Fleetwood (Lancashire):

Leave vote 52%. Corbynite Cat Smith scored one of Labour's few gains from the Tories outside London in 2015, but her three percent majority is very vulnerable.

This constituency cuts part-way through a number of wards (italicised in the table above, with their vote figures halved). Labour's vote share could have been worse - their support has held firm and they secured more votes than the Tories. But there's a solid swing to the Conservatives nevertheless. Unfortunately for Cat Smith, three-percent Labour majorities look doomed at the general election.

Gedling (Nottinghamshire):

Leave vote 56.2%. Vernon Coaker has a fight to hold onto the seat he won in 1997. His majority is distinctly marginal - a 6.2% margin, with a 14.4% Ukip vote.

Superficially, this is a good result for Labour, holding onto every single seat (Carlton East returned only one councillor this time). The Tories have ingested Ukip's vote share to slash Labour's lead  - but Labour have also added votes. The Conservatives have pulled off a solid swing here and given national polling, Coaker is teetering on the brink. But he's not finished yet.

Semi-marginals

Workington (Cumbria):

Leave vote 61%. Sue Hayman sits on a 12% majority from 2015, making this a semi-marginal. However, the Ukip vote at the last election was almost 20%, giving the Tories an opportunity.

The Tories didn't increase their count of councillors here last week, but they've made up huge ground on vote share, turning a 12.5% gap into a 1.5% gap by hoovering up Ukip votes, despite Labour's vote share also rising. Hayman's seat is at real risk in a constituency the Tories have never won in a general election. Cumbria is looking terrible for Labour.

Exeter (Devon):

Leave vote 44.8%. Ben Bradshaw's 13.3% majority is bigger than the Ukip vote share, with the Lib Dems having collapsed since 2010. There is a university here - but not a very left wing one.

The Conservatives have made up a lot of ground since 2013, but Labour have also improved their vote share, with Ukip's vote bleeding in both directions. The Lib Dems have continued to struggle. Bradshaw has a decent chance of holding on, despite the national polls.

Hyndburn (Lancashire):

Leave vote 65.8%. This is a very winnable "semi marginal" for the Tories - Graham Jones' 10.3% majority must be put in the context of a 21% Ukip vote share from 2010 and a very large Leave vote.

Labour held onto their councillors here and their vote share improved, but their lead over the Tories has been slashed from more than 13% to less than five percent as Ukip implodes.  That swing alone would take the Conservatives much of the way towards winning this seat in June. Factor in the Brexit context of June's vote and the state of national polls, and this seat is in play for the Tories.

Safe seats

City of Durham (Durham):

Leave vote 48.1%. The Lib Dems did well here in 2005 and 2010 but collapsed to fourth last time, leaving Roberta Blackman-Woods with a 25% majority over the second-placed Tories.

The Conservatives are doing nothing here but the Lib Dems have stormed back, slashing Labour's lead from 20% to three percent. They start from miles behind at the general election, but on this evidence they have a platform for pulling off a shock result if they really throw effort and resources into this seat, especially if Leave voters ditch Labour for the Tories. The question is, has Lib Dem HQ noticed while it tilts at windmills in the South West?

Chesterfield (Derbyshire):

Leave vote 59.3%. The Lib Dems briefly held this seat after Tony Benn's retirement in 2001, and nearly won it again in 2010, but their 2015 collapse left Toby Perkins with a 30% majority over the Tories in second.

On paper this could be an interesting race - a decent Ukip vote from 2015 for the Tories to mine in a Leave-voting area, with the Lib Dems using their historical strength here to appeal to Remainers.

But on this evidence, it's not happening - the Lib Dems stuck in their 2013 trough, the Tories making decent progress but Labour's vote still miles ahead. Perkins looks safe.

West Lancashire (Lancashire):

Leave vote 55%. Rosie Cooper pillaged the Lib Dems to increase her majority over the Tories to 16.8% in 2015. If Labour lose this seat next month, they're having a very bad night.

Labour's lead has only slipped slightly, from 16% to around 13.5% - not the sort of movement that ought to threaten a seat with this big a majority. Labour's vote has held up well in the towns of Ormskirk and Skelmersdale. If that is repeated at the general election, this should be a Labour hold - this seat voted to Leave, but it's not full-on Brexitania.

Norwich South (Norfolk):

Leave vote 40.4%. Clive Lewis won this seat for Labour two years ago with a 15.8% majority over the Tories, with the Greens in third and the Lib Dems plummeting from first to fourth. There has been speculation that Lewis could be vulnerable to a Tory surge.

Forget all talk that Clive Lewis is in trouble - this is an excellent set of results, in a pro-Remain, student-heavy seat that is tailor made for the left-winger who voted against triggering Article 50. The Greens have been wiped out by Labour, who extended both their vote share and their lead over the Tories. Lewis looks safe.

Wansbeck (Northumberland):

Leave vote 59.4%. Former miners' union leader Ian Lavery enjoys a hefty 28% majority over the Tories, larger than Ukip's 18% vote share. A left-winger in the party, he is one of Labour's general election campaign managers.

These results are very poor for Labour. Their lead here has collapsed from roughly 37% in 2013 to around eight percent last week - a swing of about 15% to the Tories. Not only have the Tories been sweeping up Ukip votes, but Labour's own vote share has collapsed. Some of those votes have gone to independents in Bedlington; these could return to Labour on June 8th. Lavery has a huge majority and it would take an apocalypse for him to actually lose this, but it's closer than it should be.

Blyth Valley (Northumberland):

Leave vote 63.9%. The old SDP almost won this seat in 1987, but Ronnie Campbell has held it with safe majorities ever since. In 2015 he took a 24% majority, with Ukip in second just ahead of the Conservatives.

This is the most astonishing result of the lot. There are no big independent votes here clouding the picture - the Tories really have cut a 30 point Labour lead to zero; from 6,201 votes to precisely three.

As in Wansbeck, it's not just that the Tories are taking Ukip votes - they're taking votes straight from Labour as well, something David Cameron struggled to pull off. Ronnie Campbell has been around for three decades and presumably has a personal vote he can call on - the idea of the Tories actually winning such a heartland Labour seat seems absurd. But they're definitely in business.

Bassetlaw (Nottinghamshire):

Leave vote 68.3%. Labour-held since 1935, pugnacious anti-Corbynite John Mann has an 18% majority over the Tories. The Ukip share in 2015 was 16%.

The Tories have made headway, especially in the town of Retford, but a 16% Labour lead in these elections would indicate a Labour hold. Bassetlaw is a very pro-Brexit seat - but in John Mann it has a pro-Brexit MP.

Oxford East (Oxfordshire):

Leave vote 32.3%. With Andrew Smith retiring as MP, and in a very heavily pro-Remain seat, could Labour's 30% majority be unexpectedly vulnerable?

The answer to that question is "no".

Conclusion

These are mostly county rather than metropolitan constituencies, so there weren't a huge number of Labour seats in play last week. But from those that were, we can see a picture that is both grim and variable - Labour losing its ultra-marginals, in with half a chance of clinging onto one or two slightly more solid marginals, in danger of losing some of its semi-marginals, and at risk of losing rock solid safe seats in long-standing Labour heartlands. For the most part Labour is holding its own in Remain areas, but risks going into total meltdown in strongly pro-Brexit seats.

Popular local MPs will be crucial to hanging on to seats where Labour are still competitive, together with turning out reluctant Labour supporters and neutralising the Corbyn factor that seems to play so badly outside the biggest cities. There will be marginal seats that Labour unexpectedly holds, and safe seats it unexpectedly loses.

The great danger for Labour is that the Tories do just enough to take their marginals, but secure disproportionately large swings to take their fortresses too. Be in no doubt, the outlook for Labour is grey - the only question is what shade.

And all the while, the seats Labour must gain if it is ever to return to power spin further and further away.

Methodology - Where constituencies include between a third and two-thirds of a ward, that ward is italicised and the number of votes counting towards that constituency are halved. Where constituencies include less than a third of a ward, that ward is excluded; more than two-thirds of a ward, and the ward is counted whole. DNS is used to mark where parties did not stand a candidate. Where the names of wards changed between 2013 and 2017, the old name has 2013 results listed and the new name has 2017 results listed. Mansfield and North West Durham were excluded as the very high number of elected independents make conclusions about the main parties impossible to draw. Sedgefield was excluded because the Conservatives stood so few candidates.

Chaminda Jayanetti is covering the general election for politics.co.uk. He tweets here.

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners

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