Britain’s 2021 local and devolved elections can be summed up in three statements. The first is that good results for the Conservatives conceal more problems for them than meet the eye. The second is that the results should not cause the Labour party to panic. The third is that Labour has, nevertheless, panicked.
It can’t be stressed too strongly that these elections were unique. They have taken place as the pandemic emergency appears to be nearing its end. This has been achieved by a pacesetting government- and NHS-led vaccination programme, that is hugely and rightly popular. Other things being equal, incumbents were always in a position to do well in these circumstances.
Which is exactly what happened. In England, Scotland and Wales, incumbents from rival parties – Tories, SNP and Labour – all prospered last week. This was hardly surprising. The vaccination programme is a UK-wide achievement with 88% public approval. It is no wonder that opposition parties in each country struggled to persuade voters that it was time for a change.
Yet the results were not solely a reward for incumbency. If that had been so, governing parties might have won by landslides. None of them did. Instead, the differences between last week’s results and those of the recent past, though good for incumbents, were often quite modest. The SNP, for example, put up its vote share by only one percentage point, in spite of Nicola Sturgeon’s popularity. Every opposition party – certainly including Labour in England – could also point to successes as well as failures.
In local elections, the key big-picture figure is the projected national share of the vote, an estimate of how the nation would have voted in a general election, based on the votes actually cast for the main parties in the local contests. By this yardstick, the Tories beat Labour last week by 36% of the votes to 29%, with the Liberal Democrats on 17%. So, yes, that’s a good Tory win, with a lead over Labour of seven points.
But it wasn’t huge and it wasn’t groundbreaking. It wasn’t as good as Theresa May achieved in the 2017 local elections, when many of the English local seats were last contested, and when the Tories led by nine points. In the 2019 general election, moreover, the Tory lead increased to 12. Translated into parliamentary numbers, the difference between 2019 and 2021 would sharply reduce Boris Johnson’s 80-seat majority at Westminster.
The next thing to consider is that the Conservatives achieved many of their English successes last week thanks to the disappearance of Ukip and the Brexit party. That was spectacularly the case in the Hartlepool byelection. Here, the absence of the Brexit party, which took 26% of the vote in 2019, saw the Tory share nearly double. But the absence of Ukip from local and devolved elections, which were mostly last contested in 2016 and 2017, also helped the Tories this time.
But not by as much as the Tories might have hoped. Back in 2016, before the Brexit referendum, Ukip won 12% of the votes in the English local elections. But the Tories only added six points between the 2016 locals and last week. Compare this with the Senedd elections: Ukip won 12% of the votes in Wales in 2016; last week Reform UK won only 2%. Last Thursday, the Tory share rose by a fairly modest five percentage points, but – and here’s a key difference from England – Labour also registered a similar increase. Mark Drakeford’s incumbency in Wales looks to have achieved something that eludes Keir Starmer in England: an ability to reconnect with leave voters.
Overall, the Conservatives under Johnson have regained some hegemony over the centre-right vote. By contrast, Labour has failed to achieve anything comparable on the centre-left, except perhaps in Wales. In several parts of southern England, the fragmentation of the centre-left vote actually deepened, with the Liberal Democrats and the Greens both competing with Labour for non-Conservative support.
This fragmentation understandably underlies the current talk in parts of the centre-left about creating a progressive alliance between these parties, with a commitment to proportional representation. But this fragmented progressive vote can also make the Conservatives vulnerable, even now.
Last week, amid several victories, the Tories lost control of councils such as Cambridgeshire, Oxfordshire and the Isle of Wight. They also lost seats in counties such as Hertfordshire, Surrey and Kent, as well as in Trafford in Greater Manchester. The Lib Dems, Greens and Labour all made gains at their expense.
Conservative poll watchers now contemplate the vulnerability of a “blue wall”, mainly around London. In these areas, voters who are culturally alienated from Johnson’s party may be rallying behind the best-placed opposition party. Johnson’s new planning bill, announced this week, could be an explosive catalyst in this process. The forthcoming Chesham and Amersham byelection, in a traditionally solid Tory constituency astride the HS2 rail line, will be a good indicator, with the Lib Dems the principal challenger.
None of this is to pretend that Johnson does not dominate British politics right now. He does, and he should be taken more seriously. Nor is it to deny that a damaged Starmer has huge amounts to prove. That’s true, too. But, as the pandemic eases and more familiar politics resume, it is not just Labour that needs to clarify where it stands. Cracks in the Conservatives’ apparently commanding position show the Tories face a challenge of their own, too.