It is telling that it was Plymouth rather than London where Jeremy Corbyn chose to spend the morning of May 4th. Despite expectations that Labour would take control of at least one of Barnet, Wandsworth or Westminster councils, their big victory on the night came in the south west.
Standing on Plymouth Hoe, Corbyn declared that the result demonstrated that Labour was ‘back in the southwest’. The results do indeed make good reading for the party. Labour won the only four seats to change hands on the night and all of them from Conservative incumbents. In doing so they transformed a Tory majority of three into a Labour majority of the same number.
Plymouth has very much been a ‘swing’ council between the two largest parties since the turn of the millennium. This election marked the sixth time that control of the council has changed hands since 2000. The Conservatives gained control following the 2016 local elections by forming a coalition with the three UKIP members of the council.
In contrast to many other areas across the country, in Plymouth the collapse in the UKIP vote seems to have favoured Labour more than the Conservatives. Such has been the impact of Brexit upon British politics that all three UKIP councillors subsequently defected to the Conservative Party. Fascinatingly, two of their three wards, Ham and Honicknowle, were Labour gains on May 4th . The near 30% collapse in the UKIP vote share since 2014 was shared evenly between Labour and the Conservatives in terms of increased vote shares across Plymouth, but in terms of wards only the former benefitted.
Within hours of the results, Plymouth’s Conservative MP Johnny Mercer had attributed the cause of the defeat. In a series of tweets he said that the result was down to the government’s policy of defence cuts, and the narrative that these had generated; locally, defence cuts have raised fears of job losses. Mercer went on to declare that the issue had come up on ‘every doorstep’ in the city.
In contrast to this, The Plymouth Herald speculated that the result may have been determined largely by local traffic works and cuts to local government spending. Among the Tory casualties was the portfolio holder for transport, Steve Ricketts. In his own reflection, Ricketts blamed his defeat on the large number of students in his ward and their support for Corbyn and Labour.
In order to succeed at a general election, Labour will need to win over some former Conservative and UKIP voters. The Plymouth result demonstrates that this is possible under its current leadership. In doing so, it contrasted with results in Derby and Redditch that saw the Conservatives profit from UKIP’s decline.
Historical turnover rates at the council would appear to suggest that the Conservatives have ample opportunity to strike back when the remaining two thirds of council seats are up for grabs at elections in 2019 and 2020. Labour will therefore have its work cut out to ensure that their success in Plymouth proves to be part of a local and nationwide trend rather than just another swing in a marginal city.