5 things we learned from the 2018 English local election results

GettyTheresa May goes to the polls.
  • The 2018 English local election results suggest Labour is failing to make the sort of gains it needs to be on course to form a majority government.
  • The antisemitism scandal has damaged the party in areas with large Jewish populations.
  • “The Labour party should hang its head in shame,” one Labour councillor in Barnet tells Business Insider.
  • Big problems remain for the Conservatives in cities and Remain-voting parts of the country.
  • The Liberal Democrats make significant gains including a big win in Richmond.

LONDON – Voters went to the polls on Thursday in 150 local authorities across England, in what was the biggest electoral test for Theresa May’s government since the 2017 general election.

The results will continue to trickle in until early Friday evening. However, after a long night, we now have a very clear picture of which way things have gone across the country.

Here are the 5 things we’ve learned from the 2018 English local election results:

The Brexit divide now dominates British politics

The main lesson that can be drawn from these results is that the big divide in British politics is no longer between left and right or rich and poor, but between those who voted for Brexit and those who voted against it. In all the big Remain voting cities and towns Labour has performed well, while in all the big leave voting towns the Conservatives have held ground or actually gained seats. The collapse of UKIP since the EU referendum left a large chunk of voters homeless and the evidence from these results is that the bulk of those voters have now found a home in Theresa May’s Conservative party, with around two-thirds of ex-Kippers going to the Tories and a third to Labour. By contrast, Labour’s dominance in London and other Remain-voting areas of the country has held strong tonight with the party on course for their best results in the capital for generations.

The difficulty for both parties is that this divide is now so entrenched that it is difficult to see how either Labour or the Conservatives can continue to make any significant gains into the other side’s territory. With Brexit negotiations currently stalling over the customs union and May’s Cabinet openly rebelling against her, many Leave voters are likely to grow disillusioned with the government’s handling of Brexit. Similarly, Corbyn’s refusal to take a more pro-Remain position has infuriated many Remain-supporting Labour voters. However, while voters on both sides may not be entirely happy with their party’s handling of this issue, the alternative of voting for a party that is on the fundamental opposite side of the Brexit divide is so unappealing for entrenched Remain or Leave voters that the current stalemate in British politics is likely to persist for some time.

The Labour party is treading water

Jeremy CorbynJack Taylor / Getty

Labour spinners have had a bit of a nightmare in these elections, with the party suggesting early on that they were on course to gain several councils in London from the Conservatives. Given that Labour was already incredibly dominant in the city and that the councils in question – Westminster, Wandsworth and Barnet – were very long-term Tory fortresses, that was always going to be a major stretch for Corbyn. At the time of writing the party looks to have fallen short in all three of these, with only gains in Plymouth, Trafford and a few other places that can give the party any real cheer.

The results are by no means a disaster for Labour. Overall the party has advanced modestly from its position in the general election last year and the electoral coalition it forged then appears to be holding for now. But it is not been a great victory either. For Corbyn to be confident of winning a majority at the next general election, his party should really be performing a lot better in these sort of midterm local elections. Of particular worry for them is their failure to make any real breakthroughs in the sort fo Leave-voting big towns and suburbs that they failed to break through in last year. While the results are probably not bad enough to trigger yet another full-scale leadership crisis for Corbyn, internal Labour party grumblings about his future are likely to grow once again after tonight.

The antisemitism scandal has hurt Corbyn

The antisemitism scandal that has engulfed Labour in recent weeks and months has undoubtedly had an impact on these results. In two councils with the most Jewish voters – Barnet and Bury – the party has suffered badly. Before last night Barnet looked like a relatively safe target for Labour but they have fallen drastically short with the Tories actually regaining full control of the council. One Labour councillor there tells me that Jewish voters in the borough have deserted the party en masse. “Jewish Labour voters are turning away in their masses from the Labour Party due to a fear for their safety,” they tell me, adding that “the Labour Party should hang its head in shame.”

A similar effect seems to have taken place in Bury, which also has a large Jewish population. More generally the row appears to have had the effect of taking the shine off of Labour and Corbyn’s leadership after their surprisingly good performance in last year’s general election. Of course, it’s impossible to say for sure whether failure to tackle this issue prevented Labour from making the sort of gains in London and elsewhere which they need to be on course for a governing majority in parliament, but it is clear that at the very least the issue has hurt the party badly at a local level and may well have done so nationally as well.

The Conservative party’s big city problem remains

The prime minister will be fairly relieved this morning at a set of results, which by no means good for the Conservatives, are certainly not the disaster that they could have been. The evidence from these results is that the party is broadly holding onto the support of Leave voters despite all of the difficulties of the Brexit process in recent months. However, while the party has made some gains due to the collapse of UKIP, the signs are that it is still struggling to win over the sort of Remain-supporting, younger metropolitan voters that helped cost May her majority at the last general election. While the party will be very pleased with the result in Barnet and mightily relieved to hold onto Westminster and Wandsworth, the broader picture is of a party that is losing ground in London and other major cities. If the party hopes to ever again win a majority in parliament then turning that around will be essential. The evidence from these results is that they have not even yet begun that process.

The Liberal Democrats are recovering

The biggest gainers overall in these elections are the Liberal Democrats who had a surprise victory in South West London, gaining Richmond Council from the Conservatives and a number of other solid performances across the country. The results will be a big relief for the party leader Vince Cable who has had a difficult few months with growing rumblings about his leadership among party insiders. However, while tonight’s results are encouraging for the party, they are largely what you might expect for a third party at this stage of the electoral cycle and are broadly in line with their performance in the general election last year. While a positive first step for Cable’s party, these results do not yet suggest that the Brexit result has been the major boost for the pro-EU party that they had previously hoped.

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