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Labour soul searching begins as Conservatives consolidate gains

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Labour soul searching begins as Conservatives consolidate gains

The counting of votes from last week’s local elections is now complete. Key takeaways from the result are:

English Councils 

  • Conservatives surged across the north and midlands and achieved a historic by-election win in Hartlepool.
  • The Conservatives gained over 200 councillors and took overall control of Northumberland, Harlow, Dudley, Nottinghamshire, Basingstoke, Southampton, Basildon, Cannock Chase, Welwyn Hatfield, Worcester and Nuneaton Councils.
  • Labour have lost councillors across England, but the party is feeling it the most in its former heartlands of the North and Midlands. Labour has performed better in the South.
  • The Greens have also made surprising gains across the country and became the largest party in Bristol.

Mayoral elections

  • Labour did better in the Metro Mayor elections. Sadiq Khan was re-elected in London, and Labour gained the West of England and the Cambridge and Peterborough Combined Authorities, while also easily holding Greater Manchester and the Liverpool City region.
  • For the Conservatives, Ben Houchen was easily re-elected as Mayor of Tees Valley while Andy Street held on with an increased majority in the West Midlands.

Devolved Parliamentary elections

  • Labour performed better in Wales, with Welsh Labour leader Mark Drakeford remaining first minister. The Conservatives also made gains, overtaking a lackluster Plaid Cymru as the main opposition.
  • In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon has romped home, remaining comfortably the largest Party in Holyrood. However, crucially, she has fallen just short of a majority and will govern with the support of the Greens.

The Conservative Party has consolidated its new coalition.

Brexit is done and Corbyn is gone, so Labour might have hoped that the Conservative encroachment into their former heartlands might start to retreat.  However, the results from Thursday suggest that the Government has consolidated its support from Northern, Brexit-voting, working-class voters in the so called ‘Red Wall’. It seems the shift in support from Labour to the Conservatives is a longer-term trend than initially believed in December 2019.

The standout result for the Conservatives was their extraordinary gain of Hartlepool with a swing of 16%, which is virtually unheard of for a serving government after 11 years in office. This was quickly followed by Ben Houchen holding the Tees Valley Mayoralty, with an eye-watering 73% of the vote.

Beyond this, the Conservatives have made gains in Sunderland, Derby, Wolverhampton and took overall control in Northumberland, Harlow, Dudley and Nuneaton.

Boris appeal and the vaccine bounce

The results show just how popular the Prime Minister is across England, with Boris Johnson having a potent personal appeal which reaches beyond traditional tribal loyalties. The results also indicate that English voters are, at least, broadly satisfied with Boris Johnson’s handling of the pandemic and the path to lifting restrictions. A few months ago, Labour was leading in the polls and now its support has collapsed with the vaccine rollout, transforming Boris’ ratings from just a few months ago.

Beginnings of Tory southern discomfort?

Despite their obvious success across swathes of England in this election, there are signs that the Conservatives are not having things all their own way. In well-educated and more affluent areas, the party is performing more sluggishly, including losing control of both Cambridgeshire and Oxfordshire County Councils. They went on to lose the West of England and the Cambridge and Peterborough Combined Authorities, in what proved to be two of Labours’ most standout results.

There are green shoots for the Labour Party as their vote inched forward across the shires, and they even made gains in Worthing and they took five seats from the Conservatives in nearby East Sussex County.

The Conservatives have maintained control of Surrey but lost 14 seats to opposition parties, with Labour gaining four additional councillors. Conservatives also lost their controlling majority in Tunbridge Wells for the first time in two decades, and lost councillors in Canterbury.

How does Starmer come back from the brink?   

For the Labour Party, the results are poor and the loss of Hartlepool in particular, was an underperformance, even against the most pessimistic of expectations.

Far from the start of a revival under new leadership, the Conservative encroachment into traditional Labour heartlands has solidified. The party has lost control of Durham, Sheffield and only just held on in Rotherham against a shocking Conservative advance. Results broadly reinforce the trends of the 2019 and 2017 elections. That Johnson’s electoral coalition is holding, also suggests that delivering Brexit, and a sense that those communities are being listened to, will have a longer lasting effect on voting patterns and political identity.

Labour increasingly looks like it is two parties under one umbrella and Starmer’s challenge is to come up with a platform that speaks to voters of all demographics, in and outside of large cities. The Labour Party’s soul searching – and infighting –has already begun with competing factions offering rival explanations for their losses. Allies of Jeremy Corbyn are already calling for a shift to the left arguing that they held Hartlepool under his leadership in 2019.

Such a daunting prospect has not been helped by a botched reshuffle over the weekend, occupying media attention just when results were improving. The Labour Party has historically lacked the ruthlessness to remove underperforming leaders; however, that could change. Starmer has said he’ll take responsibility for the results, but he is clearly under more pressure than ever to take a hard look at his Front Bench, and the political strategists behind it, and work out whether it’s the right balance and is a team that can genuinely challenge a decade-old Government in ascendancy.

Greens on the March 

The election proved a quietly impressive performance by the Green Party, who more than doubled their number of councillors.   The result is partially due to the growing significance of the climate crisis, but also represents the disillusionment many former Labour voters feel with their own party.

The results indicate that we may be moving towards a more typically European style of politics, such as in Germany, where cosmopolitan parties are replacing the old centre-left, which was based on class politics.

Incumbency bonus and devolved politics

While it was a good night for the Conservatives, it was an even better one for Incumbents generally. The success of devolution is partially demonstrated by the way regional mayors such as Andy Street, Ben Houchen and Andy Burnham have all been able to run well ahead of their respective parties and build additional personal support.

The results in both Wales and Scotland also illustrated the incumbency benefit received by the devolved administrations. The Prime Minister is not as keen on the devolution agenda as his predecessors; however the genie is now out of the bottle and the politics of place, above party or ideology, is proving popular among voters and is likely here to stay.

In London, Labour Mayor Sadiq Khan was secured another term, but surprisingly failed to increase the size of his victory, and in many areas of the capital he went backwards. Sadiq is considered by many Labour voters as a disappointing Mayor and the result is a weakened mandate as voters switched to the Green Party or simply stayed at home.

For the Conservatives, London has proved a missed opportunity, as Shaun Bailey, long written off by commentators, came much closer than anyone anticipated, despite receiving little support from Conservative Central Office. The Government may wonder if they might have actually won if they had directed more effort towards Shaun’s campaign. The result is also a reminder, that despite London’s exceptionalism, it is not a different county and is not necessarily immune from the national swings against Labour.

Wales

Wales was a rare bright spot for the Labour Party, as Welsh Labour leader, Mark Drakeford, was re-elected as easily the largest party at the Senedd. This is partially a response to the successful vaccine rollout in Wales, but also Drakeford’s personal popularity in contrast to Starmer.

In Wales, Labour held onto working-class leave voters much better than they did elsewhere. In Wales, Labour remains a patriotic choice for Welsh voters, contrasting with their occasionally anti-English perception across the border. The result illustrates what a more patriotic Labour Party is capable of achieving, tying together both leave and remain voters in one coalition.

The success of Labour also reduced the opportunity for Plaid Cymru, who made no progress. For now, at least, Westminster will be relieved that they only have one succession crisis on their hands, not two.

A Dis-United Kingdom

In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP were re-elected for a fourth successive term at Holyrood. However, despite remaining comfortably the largest Party, crucially she has fallen just short of a majority and will govern with the support of the Greens.

Failing to secure a majority has not prevented the First Minister talking up the prospects of a second referendum. However, the lack of majority means a second vote is increasingly unlikely in the short to medium-term.  The UK government’s position of denying a second vote remains unchanged and the power to call a second referendum is reserved. The UK Government could now find itself distracted by a protracted argument about another referendum. It is also likely that we will see more funding for infrastructure spending for Scotland to placate the nationalist instincts.

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