Labour by-election and local council gains: What does this mean for a general election?

Credit: PA

As the Labour Party prepared for this set of local elections they had one narrative in mind: what does any of it mean for a general election?

They were gearing up to reject any Conservative positivity about Tories holding onto any mayoral races, and any dampening of their march to power from national vote share calculations - all of which are yet to come.

Instead, it would be all about the swings towards them in the places they need to win.

The Blackpool South by-election could not have been a better start in trying to cement that story.

They need a 12.5% swing to win the next election, and they absolutely demolished that target with a huge 26% swing instead.

And in the same result, Rishi Sunak's nightmare was alive and kicking.

At 10pm last night, Tory sources told me they knew they had lost Blackpool, but were relieved that it looked like they would come second, and Reform UK third. That did happen. But the Conservatives only beat Richard Tice's party by 117 votes - 17.5% to 16.9%.

Even combined those votes would not beat Labour's 58.9%.

Moreover, Labour already can point to council wins in the exact places that they will have to win in the general election - like Redditch, Rushmoor, Thurrock and, importantly, Hartlepool.

Taking control of a council in the Tees Valley will help them to counter any Conservative narrative around the mayoral candidate - Ben Houchen's likely win later today.

There were problems for Labour. Sir Keir Starmer's party was desperate to take control in Harlow - where the general election seat was held under the New Labour government - and it is clear that Labour has badly lost support among Muslim voters - losing Oldham council, with others worrying them too.

Sources told me that they know Starmer's position on Gaza lost them support, but they would work hard to try to win those voters back.

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Also, it is early days - there are still thousands of results to come in - with some of the big mayoral results, like the West Midlands and London, not arriving until Saturday.

But one difficulty for Sunak mirrors that faced by Starmer three years ago.

Local election results come over days, but the narrative is so often set in one night. When the Labour leader lost the Hartlepool by-election it was a crushing blow that dominated the story - ultimately resulting in him shaking up his entire operation.

Many in Labour were disappointed that the party failed to point to some hopeful wins later in the results cycle.

And so for the prime minister, early results seem to show a clear story: that his party is losing to Labour in the Red Wall and in other key battle ground areas across England, and that they are badly threatened by Reform UK.

When the polls closed, I got a few excited texts from Conservative figures who thought perhaps there could be surprises - for example in the London mayoral race.

Labour deny there is any risk there, but the party's MPs have woken up to polling experts, like Sir John Curtice, arguing this could be their worst local election result in 40 years.

Labour candidate Chris Webb celebrates after winning the Blackpool South by-election. Credit: PA

"Not good at all," messaged one, simply, saying they now hoped there would be a leadership challenge.

It comes just after Sunak had - what many in Downing street - felt was a good week or two: passing his Rwanda bill, finding that visa reforms had cut legal migration numbers, and a promise to spend 2.5% on defence.

But a defection followed by these results will throw them back into a slump strategising about what might come next.

So, can there be any glimmer of hope for the Tories? Professor Colin Rallings told me this looks like a very bad set of results for Sunak's party and likely to finish at the worse end of his scenarios.

Blackpool South, in particular, was a drubbing, although on very low turnout.

But he also claims that the local council results show Labour hasn't risen dramatically compared to last year (remember these seats were last up in 2021) which suggests that while the Tories have clearly tanked, there is still an enthusiasm gap for Labour.

However, not one big enough to dampen celebrations this morning.

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