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Winner Takes All?

As the political parties assess the messages from England’s May election results, the picture is more complex for the odds on-favourite, explains Stewart Jackson. Despite its glide to power, Labour lost some support among its Corbynista left to the outliers, the Lib Dems showed resilience and the Greens did well. 

For a set of elections which had been written off by the media as a preordained disaster for the Conservatives and a foregone conclusion – the staging post to an inevitable Labour victory at this year’s General Election — there were quite a few fascinating nuggets to be found in the results of the local elections on May 2nd,. These took place in England alone  (not Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland).

Because of the inevitable interest in high(er) profile elected Mayors up for (re) election and London’s Mayor and Assembly, the polls were treated as a giant national opinion poll. But it is as well to remember that the seats contested were only a relatively modest number of total local council seats: the ‘national’ vote share failed to take into account the importance of Scotland in future General Election seat projections.

Turnout was low across all types of election  30 per cent of those eligible voted in the elected Mayoral contests and a pitiful 24 per cent voted for elected Police and Crime Commissioners – a role which still (after 12 years) fails to catch the public’s imagination. Even in the London Mayoral contest, bathed in the spotlight of a media based in the capital, barely four in ten voters exercised their franchise.

So, with those caveats, what were the key takeaways of last Thursday’s local elections?

1. Conservatives – Sinking fast

Things were pretty much as bad as expected for the Conservatives. Their national vote share at 25 per cent was as low as in their nadir in May 1995, (before Tony Blair’s 1997 victory). This year they lost nearly 500 seats on May 2nd and down from 40 per cent when the seats were last contested at the height of the ‘vaccine bounce’ and Boris popularity in May 2021. Conservative councillors fell to Labour not just in the Red Wall areas like Hartlepool, but in hitherto strong Conservative localities like Aldershot (Rushmoor) and Worthing. They also fell in the leafy rural and suburban/commuter areas to the Liberal Democrats in places like Dorset, Guildford and Tunbridge Wells. More worrying for the party is the seismic defeats in marginal Parliamentary seats in the midlands and south like Tamworth, Milton Keynes, Swindon and Redditch, all seats Labour held at Parliamentary level between 1997 and 2010. The elected Mayoral contests were very bad, with the Conservatives losing in areas they should have won (like North Yorkshire) and being obliterated in most of northern England.

This continues a pattern of Conservative councillors being pushed out of urban north authorities, after a renaissance in the period between 2007 and 2021. The most obvious example is Trafford borough in Greater Manchester, once a Tory fiefdom but now with a Conservative g`aqroup of eight seats and a strong Labour majority running the Council.

The only bright spot for the party is surprisingly London, where even with a poorly perceived candidate and next to no support from the central party hierarchy, Conservatives polled one third of the vote and they still remain in contention for the Mayoralty in 2028.

2. Labour – On a glide path to power

Labour’s national vote share at 35 per cent was no improvement on last year and was well below what they polled in, say, 1995 and 1996, before Tony Blair’s General Election landslide (46 per cent and 43 per cent respectively). They have benefited from being ‘not the Conservatives’ and can be content that they are now electorally once again a truly national party, winning across all regions, new councils and an extra 185 seats, overtaking the Conservatives as being the largest party in local government with about one third of all councils. Also, unlike the Conservatives, they are growing their activist base ahead of the General Election campaign. Labour will be especially pleased with winning almost all the elected mayoral contests. These are posts with real profile and influence, sizeable budgets and strategic powers in areas like regeneration and transport. Yes Labour did well. But they have suffered from the anti-Tory vote disaggregating to many parties – ‘Others’ taking 24 per cent of the vote share this year.

3. Personality still matters in electoral contests

Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen hung onto his position despite a vote drop of almost 20 per cent and a big swing to Labour, arguably because of his personal brand and strong reputation as a regional champion. Likewise, Andy Street, although defeated in his bid for a third term as West Midlands Mayor, significantly bucked the trend towards Labour and reduced the anti-Tory swing, because of his very powerful branding as a doughty defender and fighter for the region – he lost by just 0.3 per cent. Elected mayors with big names, clear objectives, simple messages and good media, can and will continue to win their elections, despite poor national polling for their parties. That said, for most candidates, the drag anchor of national opprobrium attaching to their party label sinks their bid for election.

4. Voting systems aren’t just a thing for dull nerds – they obviously affect election results! 

Who knew that elected Mayors and Police Crime Commissioners until this year were elected by the Supplementary Vote system? This is also called the Ranked Choice System, which had it been used on May 2nd would have most likely have cost not just Ben Houchen in Tees Valley but almost all the successful Conservative Police and Crime Commissioners their posts, examples being the Leicestershire, Thames Valley, Wiltshire and Cambridgeshire PCCs. The return to our traditional First Past the Post plurality voting system enabled Conservatives, even on low turnouts, to edge out their opponents on mainly high 30s per cent vote share across England. Without the change Conservatives would likely have won 11 PCCs instead of 19.

5. Liberal Democrats – Not Dead Yet

The Liberal Democrats are slowly recovering their momentum after the dreadful post-Coalition years (2011-2019), when their local government vote share sank to barely double figures (11 per cent in 2011, for instance), polling a respectable if not spectacular 17 per cent of the national vote on May 2nd and consolidating in their strongholds in the Home Counties and the West of England by putting on an extra 104 seats. They remain hugely resilient and able to damage the Conservatives in Parliamentary by elections like North Shropshire and Tiverton and Honiton and benefit from having an energetic and fanatically loyal activist base. They have the capacity to benefit from tactical voting at the forthcoming General Election, though not perhaps to the same degree as happened in 1997.

6. The Outliers – Reform, Greens and the ultra Left including Islamist party candidates – Spanners in the Works.

There’s no doubting that the Green Party had a very successful election, winning 181 seats, an increase of 74 and they are certainly digging in and building on successes last year in unlikely places like rural Suffolk, but their decision to embrace the radical pro-Palestinian stance of a number of Muslim activists thrown out or estranged from the Labour Party may have long term and damaging impacts for them. It remains to be seen how much damage they will do to Labour’s left flank when the choice for voters is not just who is their local MP or councillor  but who they want to run the country. Similarly, overtly Islamist candidates in hitherto strong Labour areas with big Muslim electorates like Birmingham, Bradford, Luton and the North West have the capacity to take votes but will be unlikely to shift many seats in the House of Commons or even council control but will surely draw off many Labour supporters disillusioned with Sir Keir Starmer’s leadership.

Reform UK is a mystery as regards its electoral performance. Having stood in only one sixth of local council seats, it’s impossible to analyse their national performance ahead of the General Election in a tangible way. However, they are polling around 13 per cent in national opinion polls and intend to contest every constituency at the election – there is no reason to believe that with a strong national campaign, simple and targeted messages and a higher media profile, they won’t grievously damage an already embattled Conservative Party and may even win half a dozen seats.

What does it mean for the General Election?

Much is made of the Conservatives being ‘only’ roughly 9 per cent behind Labour in national vote share, but these are illusory straws being clutched by Rishi Sunak. They don’t take account the possibility of widespread tactical voting, indifference and hostility of erstwhile Conservative voters, the probability of perhaps two dozen Labour gains in Scottish Parliamentary seats, similarly big gains in Wales, much higher turnout and better and more efficient party infrastructure to deliver wins in seats where it matters – dozens of constituencies in Kent, Essex, Hampshire, the East and West Midlands, West Yorkshire, Lancashire and urban East Anglia, as well as piling up votes in safe seats to add to national vote share.

All elections are about hope and fear. Absent Boris Johnson, a superb campaigner and Jeremy Corbyn, a threat and bogeyman and of course, delivering Brexit, to motivate the electorate, the Conservative Party cannot rely on merely quiet competence and residual loyalty to win a record fifth term in power. The voters are much more transactional and less deferential and more promiscuous with their favours than ever before.

Without a stronger policy prospectus, energy and imagination and a compelling narrative of renewal and reinvention, the party is likely to succumb to the forces once alluded to by former Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan in 1979: ‘ It does not matter what you say or do. There is a shift in what the public wants and what it approves of….I suspect there is now a sea change….and it is for Margaret Thatcher.’

Stewart Jackson (Lord Jackson of Peterborough) is a former Member of Parliament for Peterborough, Frontbench Spokesman on Local Government, London Borough Councillor and Vice President of the Local Government Association.

Lord Jackson of Peterborough

Stewart Jackson (Lord Jackson of Peterborough) is a member of the House of Lords where he serves on its European Affairs Select Committee. He was Member of Parliament for Peterborough between 2005-17, a junior minister at the Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU), 2016-17, and special adviser at DExEU, 2016-17. He has been a Frontbench Spokesman on Local Government, London Borough Councillor and Vice President of the Local Government Association. He became a life peer in 2022.

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