UK's opposition Labour stumbles in early results after pre-Brexit voting

Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn speaks during an election campaign poster launch in London, on May 3, 2016.
Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn speaks during an election campaign poster launch in London, on May 3, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (Reuters, Bloomberg) - Britain’s opposition Labour Party looks set to lose ground in regional and local elections, partial results showed on Friday, pointing to a dip in support that could challenge the authority of the party’s leader Jeremy 
Corbyn.  

In the biggest test of the political mood since Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative Party won a national election a year ago, Britons voted on Thursday to elect new devolved authorities in Scotland and Wales, more than 2,700 local officials across England and a new mayor of the nation’s capital city, London.  

The elections have been framed as a test of Corbyn’s first eight months in charge of Labour after his surprise victory in an internal leadership contest last September shifted the party’s political stance sharply to the left.

With more than half of the results from local government elections in England counted, Labour had lost control of 43 seats. Labour’s share of the vote was also sharply down in the Scottish and Welsh devolved government elections.  

In Scotland, where the pro-independence Scottish National Party was forecast to win another landslide, Labour lost seats and saw its vote share decline by as much as 14 percentage points in districts that were once its heartland.

The lone bright spot for a party struggling to unite and hold the Conservative government to account may be the London mayoral election, where Labour candidate Sadiq Khan looks set to be the first Muslim to take the post.  

If overall losses are confirmed, they will represent a negative verdict on Corbyn’s leadership, which has so far been dogged by vicious disagreements with a moderate core of Labour lawmakers and a string of embarrassing crises – most recently over anti-Semitic views expressed by party members. 

"It's going to take time for Jeremy to set out his stall," Tom Watson, Labour's deputy leader, told BBC Television.

Corbyn will need time "to convince the country it's the right direction."

The initial results suggest Labour may be facing a difficult night after voting across the UK to legislative assemblies in Wales and Northern Ireland, the Scottish Parliament, to 124 councils in England and for a new London mayor.

Thursday's voting was Corbyn's first big electoral test and the last gauge of voter sentiment before the June 23 referendum on the UK's membership in the European Union.

Critical Support

A bad night for Labour wouldn't necessarily be all good news for Cameron, since it's "critical" for the prime minister that Labour voters are mobilised to support his campaign to keep the UK in the EU and avert a vote for Brexit in seven weeks, according to Mujtaba Rahman, an analysts at Eurasia Group in London.

Labour losses will probably "sap momentum and, at the margin, reduce Labour's effectiveness as a pro-EU force," providing an "unwelcome problem" for Cameron given the ambivalence of his own Conservatives on Europe, Rahman said.

Also hampering Labour is the rise of the anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP). Although it took just one parliamentary seat at the general election, it won 13 per cent of the vote, and awareness of the party is now at a high with the Brexit referendum looming.

UKIP had gained 18 English council seats, suggesting it will improve on its 28 seats in the last vote in 2013.

UKIP Breakthrough?

A good showing for UKIP may spark renewed market concerns over the possibility of Brexit, according to analysts at Nomura and Jefferies. A gauge of services fell to its lowest level in more than three years in April, following bigger-than-expected declines in manufacturing and construction surveys released earlier this week.

UKIP leader Nigel Farage talked of a "breakthrough," telling the BBC  that "the big message now is that UKIP is eating very hard into the Labour vote."