LOCAL elections have seen setbacks for Labour and a collapse in the Ukip vote, with supporters of the Eurosceptic party apparently switching in droves to the Conservatives.
Early results gave a major boost to Theresa May’s hopes of a General Election landslide on June 8, with the Conservatives picking up 340 councillors and gaining control of nine authorities.
Meanwhile, Labour forfeited more than 180 council seats, lost control of Glasgow and suffered reverses in Welsh strongholds.
In a highly symbolic victory, Conservative Ben Houchen became the first elected mayor of Tees Valley, in Labour’s north-eastern heartland, beating Labour’s Sue Jeffrey by more than 2,000 votes in the second round of counting.
Liberal Democrats had a mixed election, failing to break through against the Tories in the south-west England battleground but making advances in some General Election target seats like Eastleigh and Wells.
Shadow chancellor John McDonnell acknowledged that Labour had suffered a “tough” night, but insisted the results were not “the wipeout that some people expected”.
There was still “all to play for” in the General Election in just five weeks time, he said.
As Ukip shed 63 seats while picking up a solitary councillor in Lancashire, leader Paul Nuttall said the party was “a victim of its own success” over Brexit.
Losing seats to Tories was “a price Ukip is prepared to pay” for the prize of leaving the EU, he said.
The results sparked a furious reaction from the party’s former donor Arron Banks, who said Ukip was “finished as an electoral force” under its current leadership and needed “a strategic bullet to the back of the head”.
Conservatives won the West of England metro mayor contest and topped the first round of voting in the West Midlands, while Labour claimed the mayoralties in Liverpool, Doncaster and North Tyneside.
Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon insisted the Conservatives were not complacent, but said it appeared they were winning votes from all their rivals.
Stand-out results from early counting included:
• Severe blows for Labour in the south Wales valleys, with independents taking control of Blaenau Gwent and Merthyr Tydfil
• Labour held key Welsh councils in Cardiff, Swansea and Newport, but lost control of Bridgend - the stronghold of First Minister Carwyn Jones, which Mrs May had targeted with a campaign visit
• Victory for Conservative Tim Bowles over Labour’s Lesley Mansell in the run-off for the West of England metro-mayoral post, covering Bristol and Bath
• A Ukip wipeout in former stronghold Lincolnshire, where Conservatives took overall control
• Conservatives also took control of Cambridgeshire, East Sussex, Norfolk, Monmouthshire, Isle of Wight, Derbyshire, Gloucestershire and Warwickshire. In Derbyshire, the Tories took 19 seats from Labour as the county passed directly from one party’s hands to the other.
Mr McDonnell insisted that Labour’s vote “held up” in areas of Wales where Jeremy Corbyn had campaigned, and said there were signs that voters were developing more confidence in the party leader as he had the chance to get his message across.
He repeated Labour’s challenge to Mrs May to take part in TV debates, contrasting Labour’s “open, engaging” campaign with the “robotic” appearances by the Prime Minister.
Speaking during an early-morning round of interviews, he said: “So far, it’s been a tough night, but it hasn’t been the wipeout that people expected.”
Sir Michael Fallon said Conservatives were winning support from former Labour voters because of Mr Corbyn’s “feeble” leadership.
“Voters who previously voted for all three - Lib Dem, Labour and Ukip - are now seeing that what this country needs is a government with a full, working majority to negotiate a good, successful exit from the European Union and to build a stronger, fairer Britain after that,” he said.
“To do that you need a proper working majority and that’s what Theresa May is asking for from people who previously wouldn’t have voted for us and may well have voted either Ukip or Labour.”
With full results declared by 59 of the 88 councils holding elections in England, Scotland and Wales, the Tories had control of 17 authorities, including nine gains.
Mrs May’s party had 1,088 councillors, a net gain of 340, while Labour had 676, a net loss of 186.
Among the authorities which had declared their final results, Labour had control of five councils and had lost control of five.
The Lib Dems had 262 councillors, a net loss of 31; the Scottish National Party had 217, with no net change; Plaid Cymru was on 142, a net gain of 19 and the Greens were on 15, a net gain of two.
Lib Dem former business secretary Sir Vince Cable said Ukip’s collapse had important implications for the General Election.
“Ukip has virtually disintegrated, and that matters politically because, if you are a middle-of-the-road Conservative who voted Remain and you see your own party effectively assimilating Ukip and its values as well as its voters, I think they will have pause now, and worry about the future,” he said.
Sir Vince called the results “neutral” for his party: “We’ve held our ground, unlike Labour, which has collapsed, and Ukip, which has virtually disappeared,” he said.