Jeremy Corbyn claimed the local election results left Labour “well placed” to win the next general election despite the party’s failure to capture key targets from the Tories.
A mixed set of results left both Labour and the Tories claiming success, with the Conservatives holding on to “crown jewel” authorities in London including Wandsworth.
For Labour, despite the ongoing row over anti-Semitism – which may have damaged the effort in key target Barnet, which was won by the Tories – there were signs of progress and analysis suggested the two main parties were neck-and-neck overall in terms of national vote share.
In a video message, Mr Corbyn hailed victories in Plymouth and Kirklees, and added: “We have made progress in the places we need to win in the next general election.”
“In London we have achieved the best result since 1971, missing out on winning the flagship Tory borough of Wandsworth by a whisker.”
“We are well placed to fight and win the next general election whenever it comes.”
In the last of the 150 results declared, Labour’s sweep of 42 of the 45 seats in Tower Hamlets also represented a serious defeat for Aspire, the party backed by disgraced former mayor Lutfur Rahman, which won no seats.
The polarisation within British politics was laid bare by an analysis for the BBC conducted by election guru Professor Sir John Curtice.
Votes in the local elections equated to a 35% share for both Labour and the Conservatives, which could leave Mr Corbyn as the leader of the largest party in a hung parliament if repeated at a general election.
But critics said Labour’s chances in targets such as Barnet – won by the Tories – had been damaged by the anti-Semitism row, while Mr Corbyn’s response to the chemical weapons attack in Syria and the Salisbury poisoning were also questioned.
Labour MP Ian Austin told BBC Radio 4’s Today he met voters who “are concerned about Jeremy”, adding: “His response to recent events in Salisbury or Syria have not given them much confidence, I think the anti-Semitism crisis has made us look like a nasty party they don’t want to vote for.”
But Mr Corbyn’s ally, shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon, told the programme: “It’s very rare in these local elections that people have been – when I have been knocking on doors – raising Jeremy’s leadership in a negative way.”
“Some do, some people raise it in a positive way, but nothing unusual compared to any other period of door knocking I have been doing in Labour’s history, whoever is leader.”
Deputy Labour leader Tom Watson acknowledged the Jewish community had “sent us a message” and said the party had to learn lessons when it came to dealing with anti-Semitism in its own ranks.
Labour MP Chuka Umunna called for an internal inquiry into the party’s campaign, warning that the results cannot leave it confident of success at the next national poll.
Tony Blair’s former spin doctor Alastair Campbell told Today: “We are in mid-term in the middle of these disastrous Brexit negotiations against a Government that is reaching new definitions of incompetence.”
“We should be destroying this Tory party.”
And ex-home secretary Jacqui Smith said “banging on” about progress in the capital risked creating the impression that Labour was a “London-centric party which doesn’t understand or care about the seats needed” to win an election.”
Ukip suffered a bloodbath, with dozens of councillors culled and its own general secretary comparing the party with the Black Death.
But the Liberal Democrats enjoyed success, ousting the Tories in Richmond upon Thames in south-west London – leader Sir Vince Cable’s back yard – and neighbouring Kingston, while a more unexpected victory came for the party in South Cambridgeshire.
With results in from all 150 councils:
– Labour had a net gain of 82 seats and controls the same number of authorities as before the vote.
– The Tories suffered a net loss of two councils and have 96 fewer councillors.
– The Liberal Democrats put on an extra 76 seats and gained control of four extra councils.
For the Prime Minister – just days after suffering the resignation of home secretary Amber Rudd and amid ongoing difficulties over Brexit – the results will come as a relief despite the loss of scores of councillors.
On a visit to Wandsworth she praised campaigners’ efforts in seeing off a Labour challenge which had seen the streets flooded with activists, including members of the Corbyn-backing Momentum campaign.
“Labour thought they could take control, this was one of their top targets and they threw everything at it, but they failed,” said the Prime Minister.
Labour said that tight results in four Wandsworth wards meant it missed out on victory by just 141 votes.
Brexit-backing Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson highlighted Tory success in Leave-voting, pushing the case for Mrs May to stick to her course on leaving the single market and customs union.