In the wake of yesterday’s local elections one thing that will unite members of all parties, as well as the commentariat, is the search for meaning.
Faced with an indecipherable medley of bar-charts, seat-change diagrams and news chyrons proclaiming variously about ‘Holds,’ ‘Gains’ and ‘No Overall Control’, the public too will be left puzzled as to what it all means.
Setting the narrative
If campaigners and local organisers earn their keep in the run-up to elections, it is the spinners who must now kick into overdrive and justify their pay-packets.
Both the Liberal Democrats and the Greens have an easier time of this, given both parties had a night of unalloyed if unspectacular success.
But for the main parties, the battle to set the narrative is on.
Begrudgingly present on Sky News, Tory party chair Oliver Dowden conceded that “there have been lots of difficult headlines,” for his party recently, but reasoned that if you set the results against those headlines, the Conservatives aren’t doing too badly.
“I do not accept,” he concluded, shocking absolutely no one, “that Labour have the momentum to form the next government.”
Elsewhere, speaking in Barnet, a triumphant Sir Keir Starmer told Sky News the result was a “massive turning point” for Labour, saying the party is “back on track for the general election”.
So the narrative, depending on who you listen to, is that the Conservatives did well considering the conditions and Labour are showing little signs of a big recovery, but also that the Tories under Boris Johnson are terminal and Starmer’s new-look Labour should be in position to win the next general election, but also that both major parties should be anxiously looking over their shoulders at the Lib Dems and Greens.
But what do the results actually tell us?
Starting with London, if only because more seats were up for election in the capital than anywhere else in England, the picture is a positive one for Labour.
Although the 2018 result was something of a high-point for Labour in London, the party has managed to find a few more gains, cementing even further their political dominance of the capital.
Labour gained Wandsworth, Westminster and Barnet councils - all three of which are, to varying degrees, historic results for the party.
Westminster has been Conservative since its inception and Wandsworth, famously Margaret Thatcher’s favourite council, has for decades been run as a low-tax flagship for the Tories.
Labour will say the victory in Barnet - which has a significant Jewish community - demonstrates they have succesfully rebuilt trust on the issue of antisemitism.
A good night for Labour then? Venture beyond the bounds of the M25, and the picture is less clear.
Speaking to BBC Breakfast, elections doyen John Curtice attempted to sum it all up thusly: "Outside of London, Labour’s vote is a little bit lower than it was in 2018. It hasn’t done quite as well as Jeremy Corbyn did."
Labour lost control of the council in Hull to the Liberal Democrats, failed to retake full control of Sheffield City Council with a net loss of one seat, and the party lost three seats in Barnsley, though retains control of the council.
In Newcastle, Sunderland, Tyneside, Salford, Wirral, Tameside and Oldham the party has also lost councillors, and in Hartlepool where Labour had hoped to stage a comeback, the Conservatives gained two seats.
In Thurrock, where Labour were the largest party as recently as 2014, it lost a further three seats and now has less than half that of the Conservatives. The story is similar in Nuneaton.
Prior to the contest a number of commentators highlighted Amber Valley as a key ‘red-wall’ area where a strong Labour performance would be indicative of a reversal in support among the kind of voters it lost in 2019.
But there was little encouragement for Labour in the Derbyshire council, as the Conservatives increased the majority they built in 2021 by two seats, though Labour did recover a seat lost last year.
‘Coast to coast’
The flip side of these results of course is that the Conservatives, despite the seemingly endless slew of scandals that have spanned the last few weeks/months/years, and despite being 12-year incumbents in national government, are still finding ways to solidify and even build on their electoral coalition, albeit in isolated pockets.
There are some positive signs for Labour in the English regions though, despite this failure to match up to 2018’s results.
The party won a strong majority on the new Cumberland Council and managed to retake the ever-marginal Southampton Council - results which will no doubt strike fear into the hearts of the Conservative MPs who represent these areas.
So there was some truth in Starmer’s comment to reporters this morning, that Labour had won “from coast to coast” - now he just needs to focus on all the bits in between.