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Local elections 2022: The end of the beginning

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Her Majesty the Queen has a new Labour council, the best jubilee gift she could possibly have hoped for. Not only the people in palaces, but also the oligarchs of Mayfair, the aristocrats of St James’s, and bankers of Belgravia are celebrating Westminster council turning red for the first time since 1964. New Labour leader Adam Hug is now running services for the most economically diverse and culturally significant chunk of our nation.

In Wandsworth, the fine folk of Tooting, Southfields, Putney and Battersea have cast off the Tories who ran their council from 1978 until last Thursday, and put Simon Hogg in charge of their local bins, parks, social care and the rest. The Tories’ 40-year hegemony in Wandsworth was supposedly vindication for low council taxes, flogging off council houses, contracting out services and a Thatcherite model of local government whereby the role of councillor was to sign off contracts with private companies to deliver services, and take the rest of the year off. That ended around 5am on Friday morning when a diverse slate of Labour candidates took over, including one in her 80s who was asleep in bed having been promised faithfully that if she stood, she wouldn’t win.

Labour’s triumph in this part of London is especially sweet for those of us who remember the battles of the 1980s and 1990s, who appear in walk-on roles in John O’Farrell’s tragi-comic Things Can Only Get Better. At the count at Wandsworth Town Hall, there were a few 80s veterans such Tony Belton and Martin Linton who enjoyed watching the bodies of their enemies float past. Donald Roy, Putney Labour’s warhorse, told me his first set of elections in Wandsworth was in 1974, sandwiched between the two general elections that year. I had been in Wandsworth in 1990, with a team of Labour Students, experiencing the disappointment of defeat, and drowning my sorrows in the Spread Eagle pub afterwards. The 22 year-old me would have enjoyed the 54-year old me watching Labour candidates, many not even born in the 1990s, crying with joy not loss.

The fact that Keir Starmer’s Labour Party has won Westminster and Wandsworth is in itself an astonishing triumph. If that was the only positive result of the night, it should be enough to stiffen Labour sinews. But more was to come. We celebrated victory in Barnet where slowly but surely the stain of Labour antisemitism is being rubbed away. Huge areas of London across Newham, Lambeth, Haringey, and Islington are Tory-free zones. Lewisham Labour contested 54 seats and won 54 seats, creating the kind of political management headache for mayor Damien Egan that we like. As the veteran Tory analyst Peter Bingle put it: ‘the Tory Party in London has expired. It no longer exists.’

Across the UK, Labour gained councils in Worthing, Southampton, Blaenau Gwent. West Dunbartonshire, and the new Cumberland council. Advances in Wakefield and Bridgend bode well for the coming parliamentary by-elections. In South Yorkshire, Labour’s Oliver Coppard crushed the Tories, winning support across the red wall of Barnsley, Doncaster, Rotherham and Sheffield.

These results are encouraging for Labour, but prove there is more to be done. The national vote share puts Labour on 35% to the Tories’ 30% – a significant advance on the calamitous Corbyn years but not enough to win a general election outright. This inevitably triggers counter-productive chatter about hung parliaments, coalitions and progressive alliances. Danger lies ahead. Greens, Lib Dems, nationalists: these people are not our friends and are not part of some broader progressive movement. They are our opponents; that’s why they stand against us and try to defeat us in elections. The same goes for the Trots in TUSC who stood 273 candidates in 69 councils on Thursday, and still the proletariat failed to cast off its chains.

Far more productive is to see the local elections as another building block in Labour’s recovery. It is remarkable that Labour has advanced so far so fast. What took Neil Kinnock several years as taken Starmer two.

But this only the end of the beginning, not the beginning of the end. As Peter Mandelson told a Mile End Institute conference on Friday afternoon to mark 25 years since Labour’s landslide, Starmer has merely enabled Labour to climb out of the deep hole that Corbyn threw us down. We are nowhere near the position we were in in the mid-1990s when local elections were a huge flashing neon sign that Labour was on the runway to victory. We are not quite in the territory of the 1995 local elections when Labour won 48% of the vote and gained 1807 councillors. The following year Labour gained 468 more councillors and control of 11 more councils.

We can celebrate Labour’s solid progress last Thursday. We can draw confidence from the Tories’ crumbling blue wall across the south of England. Boris Johnson has 500 angry former Conservative councillors to worry about this weekend. But we cannot be complacent. We have lost the Croydon Mayoralty to the Tories. Many switchers switched from the Tories but not to Labour. Labour lost Hull to the Lib Dems, Harrow to the Tories, and in Hastings to no-overall control, thanks to Greens gaining just two seats.

In Tower Hamlets, Labour’s John Biggs lost to Lutfur Rahman. Rahman’s conviction for electoral fraud seems to have not overly troubled the electors of Bethnal Green, Bow, Stepney and Whitechapel. Unpleasant boss politics is back in the East End. Needless to say, Ken Livingstone was seen out campaigning against Labour.

People have fallen out of love with the Conservatives, but do not yet see Labour as the obvious replacement. That will require redoubled efforts to prove we are a significantly different party from the one they rejected so decisively in that dark, cold day in December 2019. The hundreds of newly-elected Labour councillors are our standard bearers in their communities, from the Welsh Valleys to Buckingham Palace. The work to show we are normal, nice people with patriotic instincts, a sense of fairness, and an honest desire to help, not nationalise the top 500 companies and leave NATO, continues.

It is difficult, but can be done. And the volatility and unpredictability of post-pandemic politics means the whole project could be upended by a takeaway curry. Never has a chicken korma carried such political consequence.

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