For a low-key democratic event in which nothing much changed, the English local elections have had a surprisingly torrid aftermath – and not just for Jeremy Corbyn.
Obviously, Labour’s over-optimistic predictions of turning London red failed to materialise. A wheen of reasons have been cited including the anti-Semitism row which made Labour “truly toxic” in some London and Birmingham seats and drowned out policy messages where Labour’s position was stronger. YouGov polls in February put Labour support at 54 per cent compared to the Tories’ 28 per cent, though that gap narrowed in April. But in both polls, Brexit seemed less important to voters than health, housing and crime. Those priorities should have propelled Labour to victory in Wandsworth and Westminster since damning research published in January found Labour councils have built 70 per cent more affordable housing since 2013 than Tory-led boroughs in London.
But Labour’s housing record seemed to cut little ice in marginal council areas. According to the Mirror’s political editor, Kevin Maguire, the party suffered from “dreadful expectation management” and missed having the twin “stars” of Corbyn and an anti-austerity manifesto at the heart of the campaign. That’s possibly true, and the relentless pounding Corbyn received in the right-wing press over the Salisbury attack, would leave a visitor from Mars thinking he was the main suspect. Still, with rows over Russia, Syria, Windrush, immigration, Brexit, and Customs Union membership leading news bulletins for weeks beforehand, Corbyn must blame himself and Labour’s lack of clarity on key issues for a failure to register with local voters. The Lib Dems, by contrast, did reasonably well (from a very low base) by taking Richmond-on-Thames and two other councils from the Tories – focusing on frustrated EU nationals. The party apparently delivered targeted adverts in 21 European languages to the social media feeds of Europeans living in England, a canny move which paid off. Meanwhile, Vince Cable’s call for a second referendum has given the Lib Dems the clearest anti-Brexit stance of England’s political parties – indeed were it not for the astonishing fact that first past the post voting is still used in English local elections, they would surely have won more seats.
Vince Cable also believes his second vote strategy is gathering momentum and will soon demand a serious response from Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon. Commentators suggest that backing a second ballot on the Brexit deal could be the SNP leader’s “get out of jail” card – delaying a second indyref ’til the polls look more favourable, whilst earning credibility at the centre of the anti-Brexit action and chalking up Brownie points with No voters by making one last attempt to float the good ship Britannia before turning, at last, to launch Scotland’s wee Indy lifeboat. Mebbes aye, mebbes naw.
There are big question marks over Labour’s ability to take any coherent anti-Brexit stance under Jeremy Corbyn. This weekend, disgruntled Labour Lords complained openly about instructions to abstain on a vote proposing EEA membership for the Brexiting UK. It’s doubtful such a path is really a goer for Britain since EEA members (28 EU members and 3 of EFTA’s 4) must also permit freedom of movement. No EEA member is in the Customs Union and that potentially conflicts with Labour’s own vague ides about membership of a customs union. Still, I doubt these are the real reasons for Labour’s abstention strategy. Sitting on the fence has become a way of life for Labour despite the urgency and enormity of the constitutional issues facing Britain and Scotland – why change the habits of several lifetimes now? Without wholehearted Labour support, the second referendum argument is going nowhere fast. That argument also presumes the answer might be different second time around, despite recent polling which suggests pro-Brexit parts of England haven’t changed their minds at all on the merits of leaving the EU. Being bound by another advisory referendum would further undermine the UK parliament. And backing a second referendum on the Brexit deal, might create a worrying precedent for Nicola Sturgeon. If one referendum result can be “undone”, what’s to say a second indyref result cannot also be set aside?
Of course, if precedent truly mattered in British politics, Theresa May would have conceded the right to hold a new independence referendum when the SNP was re-elected with just such a manifesto commitment in 2015, reproducing the circumstances which first prompted David Cameron’s Edinburgh Agreement. But precedent is a funny old beast. Full of cast-iron certainty when it applies to the Scottish Government but absolutely up for grabs when it binds hands at Westminster. There’s no denying “escape from Brexit” is democratically messy for the SNP, but that’s true for every other political party too. Besides, there are bigger issues for Nicola Sturgeon surrounding the timing of a second Indyref as this weekend’s parade through Glasgow demonstrated. There were 40,000 or 90,000 marchers depending on your fondness for police or stewards’ statistics. But there’s no doubt that the largest rally in Scotland since the Iraq War in 2003 put all political parties on notice. The march was organised by All Under One Banner – a group of Glasgow-based Yes activists – not the SNP. Despite this, it mobilised more people while independence is supposedly “off the table” than any event at the height of the last official campaign.
Even if BBC network’s weekend news preferred to report on a much smaller demonstration in Paris, that is surely impressive. And significant. Just as last week’s local election results have handcuffed Theresa May to the Ukip voters who saved her bacon, so this weekend’s rally reminds Nicola Sturgeon that failure to call a second indyref is not an option given the stack of “material changes” since 2014. The only question for SNP voters and Yes supporters is timing. Most are still happy to leave that difficult, delicate decision to the First Minister, but impatience is growing with the absence of a robust pro-independence narrative in the meantime. The SNP is still smarting from the loss of votes and seats in last year’s snap election. But Labour’s disappointment last week demonstrates that “one more push” in Scotland is unlikely to elect a Corbyn government in London. Of course uncertainty abounds, but if the SNP doesn’t feel able like pushing for independence yet, it’s pretty clear the Yes movement soon will.