Are we past Peak Corbyn or was LE2018 just a bump in the road?
You can tell a lot about how well a party has done by where a leader goes to celebrate their election victories. Theresa May (no doubt unwittingly) re-emphasised her caution-first nature by travelling all the way to Wandsworth: a council the Tories have held since 1978. She could have gone to Nuneaton, where the Tories stripped Labour of a sizable majority (unlike Wandsworth, where it was the Tories losing seats), or to Redditch, Barnet or Basildon – but she didn’t.
Vince Cable, meanwhile, visited the wealthy Remain bastion of Richmond-upon-Thames, where the Lib Dems stormed to a tremendous win; one which by itself accounted for around one-third of their entire national net gains.
But the party HQ which must have had most re-planning to do was surely Labour’s. After ramping up their chances of taking Wandsworth and Westminster, they failed to take either. He could have headed for the former Tory northern jewel of Trafford but instead he headed off to Plymouth. That wasn’t an unreasonable choice – it was Labour’s only direct gain from Con this week – but that fact alone indicates Labour’s failure to move forward significantly.
And moving forward is what oppositions should be doing if they hope to win power at the next GE. Granted, Labour came very close to winning power last year but not only did they not do so but in relative terms, they went backwards on Thursday.
If you match their score against 2014, when these seats were last fought, then the 35-35 level pegging in this year’s national equivalent vote was two points worse than the Lab 31 Con 29 shares last time round (Labour is rather fortunate that a heavily disproportionate number of seats contested this time were in London, where it’s doing better than average, meaning that despite going backwards in the NEV, it ended up with more gains than the Tories). Labour was also two points ahead (37-35) in 2011 and one point ahead in 2016 (31-30), both one year into the new parliament.
Fervent Corbyn supporters will claim (and are claiming) that these historic parallels count for little, in the light of the extraordinary gains made by Labour during the last general election campaign. There’s an obvious truth that no measure of current opinion can accurately predict future elections – because minds do change between the poll and the actual vote and, in the case of local elections, because people are frequently voting on a different basis compared with a general election. Even so, the last two oppositions that went on to win a general election were to be doing much better one year into the parliament. Cameron led the Tories to a 13-point win in 2006, while in 1993, John Smith’s Labour was eight points up.
All of which begs the question: has Corbyn’s bubble burst? Is Labour incapable of turning those hundreds of thousands of members into new, additional votes, despite what ought to be opportune circumstances for an opposition?
As yet, the evidence is inconclusive. We do know that they made a difference when it really mattered last time – but is that a new rule or an aberration? What we do know is that the next election will be fought under different circumstances, with different levels of media coverage, different expectations and probably with a different prime minister and Tory campaign team. That should be enough uncertainty to place substantial question marks on both sides of the equation – but more so on Labour’s