Next year's local government elections will be critical for the new Labour leaderby Matthew Goodwin / September 14, 2015 / Leave a comment
The electoral challenge that is standing before Jeremy Corbyn is truly daunting. He is now the leader of a party that just attracted the third lowest share of the vote in its history. Only under Michael Foot in 1983, and Gordon Brown in 2010, did Labour attract a lower percentage of the vote. Perhaps, inevitably, many in Labour have traced their heavy defeat to Scotland. Corbyn and his followers have certainly made much of his perceived ability to reconnect with SNP voters by offering an anti-austerity stance. Insurgent voters, however, rarely prefer a copy to the original. And even were Corbyn able to win back around half of the vote that Labour lost to the SNP, which in itself would be a truly remarkable achievement, to stand even a chance of securing a majority in 2020 Labour will still need a 13 point lead over the Conservatives. If Labour still held all of its seats in Scotland it would still be nearly 60 seats behind the Conservatives.
Which brings us to England. One of Labour’s major problems is that it is trying to sell an anti-austerity platform to younger and Scottish voters while simultaneously needing to win over a larger portion of the typically older voters in England who either accept the current economic approach, or actively support it. Miliband and his party failed for several reasons but perhaps the most important was that they did not recognise the extent to which, by 2015, most voters, though anxious about the spending cuts, had come to accept the need for them and associate the government’s strategy with the economic recovery.
Labour’s failure to project economic competence and accept this changed reality was reflected in its dismal performance in England. That many of those who are joining Corbyn are from Labour areas reflects the party’s broader problem. In May, Labour stacked votes where it did not need them and failed to win them where it did. Its biggest advance of 3.8 points came in safe northern Labour seats. In fact, more generally the party added 3.5 points to its average vote share in existing Labour seats. But in southern England it made no progress at all. In marginal Conservative seats Labour remained static, in safe Conservative seats it lost nearly two points, and across all Conservative seats its support dropped by one point. Ukip, meanwhile, enjoyed gains of 14 points across all Conservative seats in the south and almost 17 points in safe Conservative seats.
There is no doubt that Labour’s stagnation is entwined with the rise of Ukip. As we argued last year in Revolt on the Right, by appealing direct to blue-collar left behind voters, the rise of Nigel Farage would make life harder for Miliband and his party, particularly in England where Labour has consistently failed to speak convincingly on immigration. Then, at the 2015 general election, it was clear to all. Where Ukip performed worse than average in England Labour increased its average vote share by five points. But where Ukip recruited above its average share of the vote Labour only advanced by two.
Ukip is not the only cause of Labour’s problems but it is a major contributory factor, and one that should not be seen in isolation. Farage, like Sturgeon or the increased apathy among working-class voters, is merely one symptom of wider trends that, over time, have gradually been eroding Labour’s traditional base. And none of this is particularly new. It was in the aftermath of the 1997 and then 2001 general elections when Labour began to lose significant numbers of its traditional, working-class voters who shared an intense objection to Labour’s pro-immigration and pro-EU stance and felt left behind by the continuing transformation of the British economy, Labour’s embrace of a global economy and third way doctrine. Ed Miliband and his team were aware of the problem but in May 2015 their lost economic credibility, ambivalence on immigration and timidity was reflected in a failure to reverse their dwindling support among economically disaffected, working-class and older voters—people who did not feel the recovery, who feel culturally threatened by rapid social change and are often opposed to Britain’s EU membership.
They awoke to find Ukip entrenched in Labour heartlands, placed second in 44 Labour-held seats. It is not all good news for Farage, however. Ukip certainly polled strongest in safe Labour seats in the north but where it is second it is, on average, 30 points behind. And clearly this is not an exclusive Labour problem. Ukip is also second in 70 Conservative-held seats. But there is an important difference, however, and one that should focus the minds of Labour. In Conservative seats where Ukip is now second, and often benefitted from the collapse of the Liberal Democrats, only one in five are ranked among the most demographically ideal for seats for Ukip. But in the Labour seats, where you more often find Farage’s perfect cocktail of working-class angst, deprivation and feelings of cultural threat, the ratio is four in five. Luckily for Labour, since May the results of local by-elections suggest that Ukip may be struggling, and its average in the polls has dropped to around 10 per cent. But if Corbyn gets this wrong then all of the ingredients for a far more significant insurgency are clearly visible.
Some argue that Corbyn is well placed to win these voters back— that, really, this is about trustworthiness, tapping into an anti-politics mood and desire for authenticity. It is a nice thought to comfort Labour on cold nights but it is simply not accurate. Those who have left Labour for Ukip are chiefly obsessed with immigration. This is not a proxy for something else. These voters really do not like immigration and they want less of it. It consistently has the strongest effects on Ukip’s support (and, for that matter, support for radical right parties across the continent). Four in five of those who voted for Ukip in May did so not because of trust but because they preferred what Farage said on immigration. Almost nine in 10 felt that controlling immigration was one of the three most important issues for Britain, more than twice the proportion among all voters. And they were twice as likely as others to identify immigration as the top issue facing themselves and their family.
So, Corbyn is facing some big challenges. When will we know how he is doing? Aside from the polls, and assuming that Labour does not implode before then, the local government elections in May 2016 will provide the first real test. Lots of these contests are in Labour heartlands, which could conceal Corbyn’s weakness among crucial swing voters. In the north, Labour already controls 29 of the 33 local councils that will hold elections. How Labour performs against Ukip in these areas, and also in Wales, will be helpful. If you see Ukip piling up the votes in places like Gateshead, Hartlepool and Tyneside then things could get problematic for Corbyn early on. Alternatively, if Labour holds Ukip back and shows some evidence of a recovery in Scotland then he could silence his critics, at least for a while. Analysts, however, will pay particular attention to Labour’s performance across 32 Conservative-held councils in eastern and southern England, where Ukip has put down strong roots and Labour has to reverse its stagnation if it is serious about winning national power. Elections will also be held in key territory covering marginal seats in the Midlands and the north, such as Amber Valley, Bury, Dudley and Nuneaton. That will be first moment when we get a real glimpse of Corbyn’s electoral appeal.