Labour won last week’s local elections, but it is a precautionary tale. When the final votes were counted, the Conservatives had lost nearly 500 seats plus several totemic councils, particularly in London and in Wales. In Scotland, Labour beat the Conservatives into second place to become the official unionist opposition to the still rampant SNP. The Party with most to smile about on Friday morning were the Liberal Democrats, who appear to be emerging from their decade of purdah, with 173 new councillors and control of three councils; the Greens also had a good night, winning 63 seats. Sinn Féin’s victory in the Stormont elections saw the party become the largest party for the first time in the province’s history. More on that later.
While local elections can’t be looked at as a national poll because they are intrinsically local and shouldn’t be extrapolated too far, there are some interesting trends which give some clues about what politics will look like by the end of the decade.
Cracks in the Coalitions.
Both Labour and the Lib Dems did well in the south of England and in urban areas. Thatcher’s crown jewels in Wandsworth and Westminster fell to Labour in London, while there is now only one Tory councillor in Richmond: 91-year-old Geoffrey Samuel, who appears to have survived only because the Lib Dems didn’t stand a candidate against him. This in a council that only a few short years ago had Govt Minister and former London mayoral candidate, Lord Goldsmith, as its MP.
Labour’s performance in the Leave-supporting ‘Red Wall’ seats in the north and midlands was patchy, with the Tories avoiding significant losses. This was serendipitous for the Tories as nearly 50% of the seats fought on Tuesday had already fallen to Labour in 2018, denying them the spectacle of large councils changing hands – but Labour’s vote share did not increase enough to secure a majority in a general election. It presents a similar problem for the Tories because they will have to face in two directions come the general election. Johnson’s support relies on former Labour-supporting working class voters, who want an interventionist approach to housing and public services, combined with traditional Tory voters in its shire heartlands, who favour tax cuts and restrictions on planning. Holding that coalition together will present a challenge which will be exacerbated if there are more scandals, fines, and self-inflicted injuries in the next Parliamentary session.
Labour’s failure to cut through in its former heartlands.
Labour’s mixed results have been blamed by some on the ‘long Corbyn’ effect, where voters are still angry with Starmer’s predecessor. However, the problem is more acute with Labour failing to address the elephant on the high street in the largely vote Leave-supporting areas. Fear of the focus groups has seen Labour hesitate to offer a meaningful critique of the impact of Brexit on the economy and allowed the Tories to frame the party and Starmer as ‘metropolitan elites’ who don’t understand or share people’s concerns about immigration and jobs. The anti-politics narrative that grew out of the referendum has seen Labour councils take the blame for cuts in public service and accused of taking voters for granted. The danger for Starmer is that support for Johnson wanes but voters are more likely to stay at home than vote Labour.
According to the BBC’s projected national vote share (PNS), if repeated in every ward in the country then Labour would be on 35%, the Tories on 30%, the Liberal Democrats on 19%, and others also on 16%. Electoral Calculus is reporting that Labour would be the largest party on 315 seats, 11 short of a majority. Voters aren’t instinctively turning to Labour, while a low turnout and a ‘plague upon both your houses’ attitude from voters means that a hung Parliament is currently the most likely outcome of the general election in 2024.
The future of the union is under question.
After her election victory, Michelle O’Neill, leader of Sinn Féin and Deputy First Minister in Northern Ireland, took care to concentrate on bread and butter issues but Mary Lou McDonald, President of Sinn Féin, promised a border poll on Irish unification within the next five years. While Sinn Féin’s success perhaps owes more to a loss of support for the DUP than a clamour for unification, the fact remains that nothing will be the same in Northern Ireland again. Many of the problems stem from Brexit and the NI Protocol, which placed a border down the Irish Sea; its failure is having a major impact on the politics of Ireland, just as it is on the relationship between the UK and the EU.
Combined with Nicola Sturgeon’s success in Scotland, where the SNP increased its number of councillors (although it only controls one council outright) as well as its share of the vote, the nationalist parties will be emboldened in their calls for referenda and the Westminster Government faces the very real prospect of constitutional upheaval being a feature of the political scene over the next few years.
The key takeaways from these elections, then, are that the Tory election-winning machine has been stalled, at least for now; but that loss of support isn’t transferring directly to Labour, with the Lib Dems and Greens being beneficiaries. All political parties are coalitions of interests, and both the Conservatives and Labour are having difficulties holding theirs together – north versus south, urban versus rural – and this will likely see a hung Parliament, just as the polls are telling us now. Finally, the centrifugal force of Brexit is driving increased pressure on the union and Britain’s unwritten constitution, while the winner takes all first past the post electoral system appears increasingly unable to cope with the pace of change. Turbulence and uncertainty, therefore, looks set to continue through to the next election in 2024 and beyond.