Paul Ovenden: Local election results show the Brexit tide is lapping at Labour’s feet

Written by Paul Ovenden on 3 May 2019 in Opinion

How Labour responds to it's major Brexit split could echo down the ages, writes former Labour spokesman Paul Ovenden

In summer 2017, Jeremy Corbyn embarked on a tour of the 40 marginal seats Labour needed to win in order to make the final push to government. While Labour had performed far better than many expected in the recent general election, there were vast areas for improvement.


One of those was in winning over the small towns and suburbs that had proven to be an effective Conservative firewall. Another was in arresting the party’s underperformance in its own heartland towns in the midlands and the north. Labour’s policy offering – a potent mixture of us vs them populism, anti-liberalism and a promise to reverse the decay of nine years of austerity – combined with some impressively slick PPBs and retail offers, were supposed to breach one wall and shore up another. But the challenge has been to get this message heard and, on this front, last night’s local elections raise far more questions than answers.


One of the great truisms of British elections is that the opposition does well at locals and the Government does badly.  Let’s make no mistake here: despite some pretty impressive expectation management, the Tories have had a shocker. But nine years into a Conservative government whose MPs have already had a go at deposing the Prime Minister and whose activists look set to give it another shot soon, Labour should, in the words of Ruth Smeeth, be waltzing it.


Instead, the party has lost in Brexit voting towns it considers its heartlands, such as Ashfield and Hartlepool and Stoke, where Labour launched its local election campaign.  Even Bolsover, Dennis Skinner's seat in the Nottingham coalfields, has gone to no overall control.  In the 2017 general election there were fears that these areas were vulnerable if lifelong Labour voters didn’t turn up. They did. This morning, those fears are back.


The story looks very different in the south of England. Labour are delighted with the results in Basildon, Southend and Stevenage. But this is part of a wider picture – one that has seen the Lib Dems making far more aggressive advances, ripping up Tory control in places like Chelmsford, Vale of White Horse and Winchester. Labour are going backwards in the north, the Tories are mirroring them in the south.


Looking at last night’s results is enough to leave you wondering what exactly opposition is these days. Is it Labour? Is it the smaller parties? Or is it the aggrieved and increasingly animated parts of both the 2016 Leave and Remain votes, venting their respective furies at the two main parties? Brexit – you feel your lips purse around the word – has hacked British politics.


Both Leave and Remain forces have good reason to see last night as a victory. Neither of the big parties does. Labour’s delicate balancing act on these two positions will almost certainly survive next month's Peterborough by election - where the Brexit Party should decimate the Leave-leaning Tory vote – but the tide is lapping at the party’s feet. Labour MPs in the north claim that their constituents don’t believe Labour will deliver Brexit; while support in the south feels soft and vulnerable to the explicitly Remain parties.  A decision is surely coming. What happens next could echo down the ages.


Paul Ovenden is a director of iNHouse Communications and a former Labour spokesman.

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