Support Remain? Don’t Be So Quick Labour

Thursday 2nd May saw local elections held across England and Northern Ireland, with 248 English local councils up for election, including Leeds City Council. The nationwide results saw voters reject both the Conservatives and Labour, while smaller parties, primarily the Liberal Democrats and Greens, benefitted from the ill-fortune of the two major parties.

The results will be of some concern to the Labour Party, as the party lost seats nationally at a time when electoral gains would have been expected. In Leeds, Labour lost four seats, but retained control of the council with a comfortable majority. While the worst losses were experienced by the Conservatives, who lost a staggering 1350 councillors and 44 councils nationwide, Labour too were left bitterly disappointed, losing 84 councillors and 6 councils.

Both the Liberal Democrats and the Greens picked up the spoils of the increasingly-split Remain vote. Labour’s losses, while far less dramatic than those of the Conservatives, should be a cause of considerable concern for the party after nine years in opposition. At this stage in the electoral cycle, the opposition party should strive to be seen as a government in waiting, and the results cast significant doubt over the party’s fitness to govern.

Labour’s impressive result in the 2017 General Election rested largely on its fragile coalition of metropolitan remain voters in larger cities, as well as those who voted to leave the European Union in the party’s traditional northern heartlands. Thursday’s local elections saw the fragmentation of this bloc, as Remain voters drifted further towards the overtly anti-Brexit Lib Dems and Greens, and leave voters registered their increasing disillusionment with the lack of progress in leaving the European Union. Labour lost overall control in a host of leave-voting towns in North East England, including Middlesbrough, Darlington and Hartlepool.

These losses were only compounded by the fact that, on the whole, the party failed to make a breakthrough in remain-leaning areas which turned their back on the Conservatives. In remain-minded Winchester, the Liberal Democrats seized control from the Tories, a pattern mirrored in Bath & North East Somerset, which swung 58% remain in 2016. Such results suggest a pattern of leave-voters abandoning Labour in its heartlands, while the party fails to win over those who voted to remain in other areas. This raises significant questions of Labour’s shift towards support for a second EU referendum, as it indicates that such a policy alienates leave voters, but fails to go far enough to win around those who voted to remain.

Gains for the Liberal Democrats and the Greens might be taken to indicate a growing anti-Brexit sentiment across the country, thus suggesting that Labour should move to support a second referendum, but there are several caveats which must be considered before drawing this conclusion.

While the two major parties did see their respective votes decline, the local elections did not feature mainstream, overtly pro-Brexit party. UKIP’s steady drift to political irrelevance continued, with the party losing all but 31 of its 176 councillors. Since the departure of Nigel Farage, the party has been ravaged by internal disputes and was punished at the ballot box as voters rejected its lurch to the far-right. Perhaps a better indicator of the scale of the pro-Brexit vote will be the European Parliament elections later this month, with Farage’s newly-launched Brexit Party currently leading in many of the polls. Given the state of the polling, and the surge of support for the Brexit Party, a move towards supporting a second referendum or remaining in the EU would surely be an ill-judged move from Labour.

It is also vital to note that these council seats were last up for election in 2015, a time at which the Liberal Democrat vote was utterly decimated following their spell in coalition government. Thus, the scale of Lib Dem gains, must be seen in the context of 2015 – the Lib Dem resurgence started from a very low-bar. Further to this, it must be remembered that these were local elections, and that many of the issues people voted on were inherently local. Using the results of these local elections to argue that there has been a tangible shift towards support for remaining in the EU is misguided, and fails to account for the lack of pro-Brexit options for voters, as well as local factors which may better explain the increased vote share for smaller parties.

What is certain is that the fragile coalition of Labour’s 2017 vote has finally begun to fragment, and the party must now abandon the strategic ambivalence that has defined its Brexit policy to this point. While one faction of Labour’s broad church will inevitably be left disappointed by any such move, these results suggest that the party remains most vulnerable in its traditional, leave-voting heartlands. Losses in North East Derbyshire, Bolsover, Burnley and Stockton-on-Tees will concern the leadership, and suggest that the party should avoid support for any second EU referendum.

Instead, the party should reassert its commitment to delivering on the result of the referendum, while drawing concessions from the government on jobs, workers’ rights and a customs arrangement. This year’s local elections undeniably saw a swing towards remain parties, but given the lack of a mainstream pro-Brexit choice, low turnout, and the aforementioned caveats, it would be unwise for Labour to interpret these elections as any clear signal that the party should move to support remaining in the EU.