Local elections are inevitably – and rightly – about local issues but there’s no getting away from the reality that Brexit played a big part in the shocking results that began rolling in on Thursday night.
Those votes make clear that a general election would not deliver a decisive victory to either side. A new parliament would be just as split – both on Brexit and on all the other issues that face our country – as the existing one. The Tories had a catastrophic night losing more than 1,300 seats, but Labour’s support is draining away as well. John McDonnell said on the evening of polling day that he expected more than 400 gains. And, 48 hours later, it looks like Labour has lost almost 100 councillors since these seats were last up for election in 2015, when we had one of the worst results in the history of our party.
The beneficiaries were the smaller parties. In my city of Sunderland, local issues took their toll on the Labour council and Ukip picked up three seats. If you believe in the mythical version of Sunderland that many in the London media seem to think is real, it’s a sort of post-industrial wasteland populated entirely by men aged in their 50s and 60s who are former miners and dislike the European Union. Too many journalists come here with their story already written, their minds made up, and they don’t spend much time listening.
They look at seats, but not votes, and stop asking questions. But in the real modern city of Sunderland, the Green Party picked up their first ever seat, while the local Liberal Democrats had a good night too. It was the day Sunderland’s remain-backing Labour supporters – and there are lots of them because the city’s a big place where more people voted remain than in Cambridge – gave us a bloody nose and showed us their support is not unconditional. Even where Ukip won seats it was because the Labour vote went off to the Greens, the Lib Dems or stayed at home, rather than turning to the far right.
All this is a reminder to politicians as much as journalists that it’s people who vote, not places. There are plenty living in what are sometimes called “Labour heartlands” who have never voted Labour in their lives – and plenty more who resent being taken for granted. There are also many electors who haven’t been prepared to vote Labour recently for reasons unrelated to Brexit, partly reflecting the slow change in Labour away from less well-off working people outside London and towards being a party of the big cities.
That pattern held across England – both Labour and the Tories saw votes that have previously been cast for them move elsewhere, above all to the parties that want us to stay in the EU. Parties that have advocated some form of deal that involves leaving the EU – the Tories and Labour – were punished across the country. They lost seats and they lost votes.
So the notion that the electorate was giving a message to the Labour leadership that they need to hurry up and deliver a deal to take us out of the European Union is lazy and ridiculous. It is also a calculated insult to the intelligence of every Labour supporter, every Labour member and every wavering voter who believes our country’s interests are best served by staying in the EU.
The idea that we can speedily resolve something that has soaked up government attention for almost three years, and will continue to do so for at least a decade, is a delusion. Settling a new relationship with the EU would absorb the time of the next Labour government just as surely as it is now with the Tories. We would be distracted from tackling the real problems: an epidemic of low pay, child poverty rising in absolute terms, services and communities ravaged by almost a decade of austerity.
It is unforgivable to mislead the working people who our party was founded to represent. I will not tell my constituents that leaving the EU will make them more prosperous, more equal or more free. I will not vote for any deal in Parliament which does not go back to the public for their approval. To those who tell us that Labour’s manifesto promised to deliver Brexit, I say not only that we lost the election and are not in government, but also that we rejected a “no-deal” scenario.
We promised to back Brexit only if it met six tests laid down by the Labour frontbench. To deliver anything else is a clear breach of that promise. It should be a source of shame to us all that Labour’s position, on the most urgent challenge that our country faces, has been to wallow in fudge for three long years. It cannot go on. Westminster has now shown itself incapable of reaching a conclusion. After these local elections, it is clear that a general election won’t change that. It is time to put the question back to the people. Only they can decide whether they want to go ahead with a Brexit that is so far from what was promised in 2016.
This article was originally published in The Observer, you can read it here.