Labour’s performance in the recent council elections suggests that the party is struggling to attract the working-class voters who traditionally formed the core of its support, according to a detailed analysis of the results.
A report for the Fabian Society by the political analyst Lewis Baston examines voting patterns in the marginal constituencies that Labour would have to win to achieve a parliamentary majority.
Baston’s analysis shows that Labour performed well in what he calls “the most modern bits of England” and badly in its heartlands.
Turnout in local elections tends to be much lower than at general elections, and they are often fought on purely local issues, but regional patterns can help give pointers as to a party’s appeal for different groups of voters.
Labour lost a net 18 council seats once all the votes were counted and drew ahead of the Conservatives on the projected national share of the vote by 1 percentage point – a better result than many experts predicted.
Baston finds that despite the deep divide within the parliamentary Labour party between the leftwing leadership of Jeremy Corbyn and centrist “Blairite” MPs, the party’s best showing was in areas where New Labour succeeded.
“The best Labour results were in some of the most modern bits of England, in London and its hinterland. Swindon, Milton Keynes, Reading and Crawley, and the leafy London suburbs, are what used to be regarded as classic New Labour territory, but now seem oddly fond of new old Labour,” he said. “A more traditional socialist appeal seems to go over better with these voters than with the traditional working class.”
By contrast, voters switched to the Conservatives in areas where Labour needs to win seats to secure a majority in 2020, such as Nuneaton and Cannock Chase, compared with the 2012 local elections.
“Weakness in crucial types of constituencies in 2016, such as unpretentious Midlands towns (Nuneaton, Cannock) and big city suburbs (Bury, Bolton) is ominous, while stronger showings were in affluent seats that are either already Labour or require large swings to be sustained through to May 2020,” Baston said.
Comparing the results in marginal constituencies with the 2015 general election, Labour saw its share of the vote improve by 3.3% in the south, and 2.2% in the Midlands, but in the north, it declined by 1.8%.
Corbyn said in the aftermath of the elections that instead of losing scores of council seats, as predicted, we “hung on and we grew support in a lot of places”. But MPs sceptical about his leadership are looking for evidence that he can extend the party’s reach into new areas to chart the course back to power.
Baston said that in the past, a 1 percentage point lead on the national share of the vote had not been enough to put oppositions on course to win the following general election.
The report found that substantial leads for opposition parties a year after a general election tended to lead to a change in government in the subsequent general election. It noted that large shares of the national vote for Labour under John Smith in 1993 and the Conservatives under Cameron in 2006 were followed by their gaining power four years later.
However, Baston said, smaller opposition leads in local elections, such as those secured by Corbyn last week and Ed Miliband in 2011, had in the past failed to be converted into general election success.
“Labour’s performance in 2016 was squarely in line with what one might expect a year into a parliament where the opposition is not going to win the general election,” he said.
Andrew Harrop, the Fabian Society general secretary, said: “The results may not have been a disaster for Labour, but there is no sign that Jeremy Corbyn will do any better than Ed Miliband in winning the sorts of seats which Labour needs to govern.
With the party moving neither forwards nor backwards, Labour is no closer to resolving its internal conflicts. These results simply kick the can down the road.”
This article was written by Heather Stewart Political editor, for theguardian.com on Saturday 14th May 2016 13.49 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010