It’s been a disappointing night for both main parties in the local elections. As predicted, the Conservatives have suffered serious losses and could be on course to lose around 800 council seats by the time all votes have been counted. Perhaps more surprising is Labour’s bad turn. The party has suffered a net loss of seats taking a hit in Leave areas like Sunderland, Ashfield and Bolsover. This is not the performance one would expect from a party on course for a majority in a general election.
Labour councillors and politicians have been quick to start the blame game. After Labour lost ten seats in Sunderland, the party’s council leader Graeme Miller blamed Labour MPs supporting a second referendum: ‘Sunderland voted as a city to leave in June 2016, and having had a Labour message across the city from MPs saying we need to be having a second referendum, people in Sunderland have said ‘we are just not accepting that’. Barnsley Labour leader Stephen Houghton has blamed Brexit for a bad showing – ‘the message we are getting loud and clear is all about Brexit’. MPs representing Leave constituencies have been quick to echo that message with Stoke MP Ruth Smeeth saying ‘there are consequences for us not moving forward with Brexit, in that hundreds of councillors will lose their seats’.
Others are blaming Labour ambiguity. Jess Phillips has suggested that the problem is a lack of clarity – and urged her party to be brave. Given that the Birmingham MP has spoken in favour of a second referendum, it’s fair to say she has a different idea of what clear position the party should take than Miller. Notably, shadow chancellor John McDonnell has taken to social media to suggest it’s time to take decisive action on the issue: ‘Brexit – sort it’.
We’ll see what final results of local elections look like by end of day as they are pretty mixed geographically up to now but so far message from local elections- “Brexit – sort it.” Message received.
— John McDonnell MP (@johnmcdonnellMP) May 3, 2019
So, where does this leave the party’s Brexit position? The figures in the Leader’s Office who have consistently fought off efforts to make the party explicitly endorse a second referendum will be able to point to the losses in the north as vindication of their argument. Had the party gone all out for a second referendum, the result in these areas would have likely been even worse. On the flip side, the big winner from the local elections is the Lib Dems – an explicitly pro-EU party. They have made the most gains and succeeded in making inroads in Tory areas. This means the People’s Vote campaigners can point to this and argue that a clear Remain position would aid the party.
However, given that Team Corbyn see Leave marginals as crucial to winning a majority, the results in places like Sunderland will worry them. With the Labour/Tory Brexit talks due to come to a close next week, it could work as an incentive to get Corbyn to strike a deal with May.