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Jeremy Corbyn had a bad night – but the Tories still have much to fear from the left

4 May 2018

11:38 AM

4 May 2018

11:38 AM

It’s a bit mean to accuse the Tories of cynical expectations management, as Jeremy Corbyn has just done. Their panic was quite genuine. I’ve spoken to a great many Tories over the last few weeks, and none would have been so bold as to predict today’s results. Rallings & Thrasher had expected the Tories to lose 75 seats in aggregate, and so far they’re about flat. Given the awful time that Theresa May has had recently, it’s not a bad result. It was, as Tory chairman Brandon Lewis has said, a ‘reasonable’ night.

But the fact that such a close result is described as ‘reasonable’ shows how far things have deteriorated for the Conservatives. When Jeremy Corbyn deprived Theresa May of her majority last year, the Tories had no idea what hit them and wondered if this was a freak result. Whether Labour support was genuinely so high, or whether they had only done so well because no one expected Corbyn to win. According to Michael Thrasher’s analysis for Sky News, if the local results were projected on a national scale then Corbyn would still have done so well and the Tories a bit worse.

The upshot of today’s local election results is that Jeremy Corbyn cannot be confident of winning a general election victory, and if that sounds like good news to the Tories then it shows how far things have come. It’s easy to forget how politics looked in May last year, when local elections came during a general election campaign and Theresa May did very well, setting herself up for a 100-plus majority in Westminster. The idea that Corbyn would be depriving them of a majority would have then been seen as a horrific outcome. Rightly so. That such a leader of such a party remains in striking distance of No. 10 is still horrific. He hasn’t advanced, and Tories can give thanks for that. But nor has he lost ground.

Why has Labour captured so much territory? In my Daily Telegraph column today, I say that Mrs May was right to see Corbyn as the bad leader of a shambolic party, but she underestimated the power of the other groups fighting the Tories. There’s the People’s Assembly Against Austerity, the various trades unions, School Cuts, Momentum – all well-organised groups capable of getting people out on the streets as well as clicking a box. I say in the column that he most-watched political video of last year was not the anti-Corbyn one made by the Tories (which they claimed at the time) but one made by a group called NHS Roadshow where a few doctors and nurses asked viewers to vote anyone but the Tories. It has been seen more than ten million times.

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This is what the Tories need to worry about. Yes, they have picked up lots of votes lost by Ukip and held on to London councils. But even in these local campaigns, the anti-Tory alliance was operating – letters from unions, pamphlets from School Cuts, even a group called the3million campaigning for the rights of EU nationals. These are good campaigns: one senior Tory official I know told me even he felt disgusted with his party after seeing the NHS video. And even I was tempted to take the (unspoken) anti-Tory advice of the 3 million campaign, a cause that I feel more strongly about than the Tories keeping my local council (Richmond, which they lost).

The proliferation of campaign groups helps explain why a shambolic Labour Party is so close to power and remains so close to power. The Corbyn surge has not continued, for now. But there is still much for the Tories to learn from the tactics that the left is using.

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