Corbyn Has Little to Celebrate in Britain's Local Elections

(Bloomberg) -- Theresa May’s Conservatives held ground and the main opposition parties made small gains in local council elections, benefiting from the collapse of the U.K. Independence Party in results that saw Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour continue to struggle outside London.

At 9.09 a.m., with results in from 99 of the 150 English councils that were holding elections, the Conservatives had a net loss of 2 seats, Labour had a net gain of 37, and the Liberal Democrats were up 40. UKIP were down 92. More than 4,000 seats were up for grabs.

Corbyn Has Little to Celebrate in Britain's Local Elections

The seats were last contested in 2014, when UKIP was on the march as voters protested about immigration from the European Union, and the Liberal Democrats were taking a beating from people angry that they were in coalition with the Conservatives nationally.

So what does it all mean?

It’s bad for Labour

The basic rule for council elections is that the party that’s in national government usually loses seats. The vote may be supposed to be about local issues -- schools, planning, trash collection -- but many people see them as an opportunity to kick the party in national power. For Labour to barely be ahead of the Tories in overall net gains is poor. “Labour hasn’t made anything like the expected gains in terms of seats, and is actually going backwards slightly on the national vote share,” said Matt Singh of NumberCruncherPolitics. “These aren’t the results of a party that’s about to storm the next general election.” In the north London district of Barnet, a controversy over anti-Semitism in the Labour party may have damaged its standing.

But it’s not exactly good for the Tories in London

In the capital, Labour made gains -- though not at the level it had hoped -- as did the Liberal Democrats. May’s decision to use Brexit to fight a culture war against internationally minded “citizens of nowhere” continues to play badly in the capital, where there’s a high level of racial diversity and a lot of opposition to leaving the EU. Brandon Lewis, the Tory chairman, said his party has “work to do.”

But Labour were hoping for more

A lot of the London results are yet to come, but remember that back in March we were told the Tories would lose 100 seats to Labour, falling to their lowest-ever showing in the capital. Things seem to be looking better than that. “There isn’t really much for the Labour Party to celebrate,” Strathclyde University’s elections guru John Curtice told the BBC.

Divided Britain

Every so often, May announces that the country is coming together after the splits of the Brexit vote. Once again, these election results fail to bear that claim out. “We seem to be seeing an entrenchment of the status quo; a divided Britain in which big cities vote Labour and everywhere else votes Conservative,” said Jonathan Carr-West, chief executive of the Local Government Information Unit.

Winning losers?

It’s undoubtedly a bad night for UKIP, continuing their collapse since the Brexit vote and former leader Nigel Farage’s departure. But remember that though UKIP may no longer have much influence over trash collections in the English Midlands, their guiding policy -- leaving the EU -- has been adopted wholesale by the British government.

Going nowhere

In the past, disappointing local election results have led to calls for party leaders to go. But neither May nor Corbyn is vulnerable to that this time. Conservative lawmakers don’t much want to keep May, but can’t agree on how to replace her, or what her successor should do differently. Labour lawmakers know that the party membership continues to back Corbyn.

Nothing means anything

How good are these elections as a guide to national polls? Well, in May 2017 they were a disaster for Labour and a triumph for the Conservatives. But in the general election only one month later, May lost her parliamentary majority and came close to losing her job. So, probably not a very good guide at all.

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