Britain has entered a new era of ultra-hung politics. Were last night’s local election results replicated on a national level, Labour would win 283 seats (up 21), the Conservatives 280 (down 38) and the resurgent Liberal Democrats 22 (up 10).
Having been derided by the Tories for failing to meet great expectations, Labour activists are jubilant at this finding. In a hung parliament, their party would have the best hope of assembling a government with SNP and Liberal Democrat support.
This was not, contrary to what some have claimed, a “bad night” for Jeremy Corbyn’s party. It advanced on its positive 2014 performance (the last time these areas were fought): gaining 64 council seats, while the Conservatives lost 20. Only a year ago, let us recall, the Tories believed Labour was destined for electoral apocalypse.
But Corbyn’s party did not make the gains required for it to be confident of forming a stable government, let alone winning a majority (326 seats). Voters traditionally use council elections as a cost-free protest against incumbents. As Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband both learned to their cost, local gains do not invariably translate into national ones. Oppositions need a substantial mid-term lead to be confident of assuming power. Based on last night’s results, Labour is merely tied with the Tories (on 35 per cent each). Outside of general election years, this is the first time since 1988 when an opposition Labour party has not led the Conservatives.
The Tories’ support remains inflated by the collapse of Ukip – but the Remain backlash and Corbyn surge of 2017 have endured. Not since 1987 have the Conservatives won a comfortable parliamentary majority – and there is no sign that they will soon revive past glories.
What of Labour? The party has not won a general election for 13 years and currently holds just four more seats (262) than Gordon Brown in 2010. It is thriving in Remain redoubts such as London (where the party achieved its best result since 1971) and Manchester, but losing ground in their Leave equivalents: Derby, Nuneaton and Redditch. Labour is hegemonic among young, liberal and ethnic minority voters but struggles among the old and illberal.
After overturning a 22-point Conservative lead in last year’s election campaign, Labour hope and believe that they would overpower the Tories in a national contest (benefiting from broadcast coverage rules and deploying their activist army of 552,000 members). The next election may be as many as four years away – and governments traditionally lose popularity with time. The Conservatives’ epic divisions over Brexit could yet condemn them to opposition.
But the hope in Tory hearts, and the fear in Labour ones, is that “peak Corbyn” has been reached. The remarkable advance of 2017 made the party a contender for power – but no more. To govern for the many, Corbyn needs another great leap forward.
George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.
This article first appeared in the New Statesman