Friday 5 May 2023

Politics After the Local Elections

When Tory chair Greg Hands did the TV studio rounds a few weeks ago to say the Tories would lose 1,000 councillors, he probably didn't believe it himself. Just pluck an implausibly large figure backed by "independent evidence" from the ether, and use it for expectation management. Any losses short of four figures could be spun as a failure for Labour, and be evidence that the glow of optimism was brightening Tory horizons. Oh dear. 1,061 councillors down and Labour declared the largest party in local government for the first time in 21 years, this has been a very bad night for the government.

At 10:00 on Friday night and with three councils still to declare, the picture's not going to change very much. Labour are presently up 527 seats, the Liberal Democrats 416, and the Greens 240. That's 22 more councils (including Stoke-on-Trent) passing into Labour's hands, the Lib Dems gaining 12, and for the first time anywhere in the Northern Hemisphere the Greens in Mid-Suffolk have won a majority on a local authority. And yet, there's a fly in the ointment. At least if you take your analysis from the esteemed John Curtice. Rather than it being a triumph for Labour, these results point only toward a hung parliament. If you throw in the strong gains for the Lib Dems and the Greens, and the odd result here and there where expellee councillors from Labour have been returned as independents or Greens - particularly on Merseyside - then Keir Starmer isn't on course for an overall majority.

According to Curtice's projected national vote share, on the basis of these contests Labour managed 35% to the Tories' 26%. Better than when these seats were last contested, but not a great advance on what happened last year. Far be it for me to disagree with political science's answer to national treasurehood, but this analysis is short-sighted and has not paid any attention to who voted in these elections. But because it is John Curtice, is likely to be taken as copium by left wingers wanting to believe Keir Starmer's driving Labour into an electoral ditch.

Voters can be segmented for analytical purposes. Sometimes it's useful, sometimes it's utterly self-serving. For our purposes of thinking about what these results might say about the general election to come, we have to look at who voted. We know from election after election that older people, particularly the retired, turn out in greater numbers than any other cohort of voters. Despite the rubbish written about a rubbish result, in 2019 Labour still was the biggest party among working age people. It was the oldies that won Boris Johnson the victory that was supposed to set the Tories up for a decade. Because of property, because of the experience of retirement, this predisposes them favourably to the Tories. Obviously not all pensioners but stubborn and disproportionate Tory support among this layer for the last decade is an inescapable social fact.

It also just so happens that as turn out diminishes in local elections when compared to a general election, the disproportionate tendency of the old to rock up at the polls becomes even starker. Therefore the Tories have enjoyed a built-in local election advantage for the best part of two decades - since the point the party became the largest in local government, as it happens. If Tory support takes a hammering in local elections, it suggests that this core layer of support aren't as reliable as previously. Not great when the Tories are already facing a crisis of political reproduction among those who would support them.

What does this mean for a general election? It suggests that when the polls open in a year to 18 months from now, Labour will do even better as the Tory leaning layers are diluted by larger numbers of working age people voting. I know this, most political scientists know this, and so does Starmer's office. Hence why the Labour leader's representatives can tour the studios this weekend and say in all sincerity that they believe Labour are on course for Downing Street.

Does this mean anything politically? We'll see what accent the shadow cabinet emphasises next. Are they still going to be denying they want nice things and carry on with the miserable trudge of not offering much and expecting great electoral returns? From the most empiricist of view points, the utility of that has just been confirmed by the ballot box. Or will we see a switch over into offering something more concrete, positive and hopeful now they've "earned permission" for a hearing? With more substantial speeches coming up on the NHS and social security, that question will soon find an answer. What is likely is the good results for the Lib Dems and Greens will get paid no mind, though they are well-placed to do better from discontent with a Starmer government than either the Tories or the ridiculous Reform UK. Already I've seen Labour's routing of the Greens in Brighton as supposed proof that they pose the party little threat, while ignoring the surge elsewhere. If strong showings from them and, to a lesser extent, the Lib Dems are going to keep Labour "honest" there's a way to go yet, but make no mistake. That is the road we're on.

And what about the Tories? There will be plenty of knives out stories in the papers this weekend. The wheels of politics slow for no one, least of all a coronating king. To a rationally-minded Tory capable of intellectual honesty which, as we know, are thin on the ground, today's result should underlined the bankruptcy of Rishi Sunak's voter ID wheeze, and the twin track Tory briefcase/war on woke strategy. What Labour have absolutely got right is an awareness that people are fed up of how the Tories are running basic services into the ground and are uninterested in even making life minimally better. Even a shuffle, a minor move that might make the state work or leave people feeling better off could shift back millions of votes, but they're wedded to their path. Not because of "ideology" or "dogma", but statecraft and class politics. The famous Tory characteristic of, despite the Conservative name, being the most adaptable and flexible of parties has found them stuck with a diminishing coalition of voters and a prospectus that cannot save them from a cataclysm. And because they cannot change, the future pointed to by this set of local election results is unlikely to either.

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Unknown said...

Except, of course, you omit the effect of Labour's dire standing in Scotland, which is essential to winning a majority given all the results we have seen!

David Lindsay said...

Since October, Labour's poll lead has fallen from 37 per cent to seven per cent. The party has just taken fewer votes than it did for the same seats in 2019, under Jeremy Corbyn. Its projected national share is in single figures, which is not enough for an overall majority, and there is still a year and a half to go. The Liberal Democrats have done about as well as Labour, and in places that mattered to the Conservatives. The Green Party has been stunningly successful. People expelled from the Labour Party have romped home against its official candidates, with the best-known, Councillor Alan Gibbons of Liverpool City Council, taking 77 per cent of the vote, and 1,428 votes to Labour's 360.

So now, they are all catching up. I predicted both hung Parliaments this century, and I predicted another one on the day that Rishi Sunak became Prime Minister. When I tell you that there is going to be a hung Parliament, then you can take that to the bank. I spent the 2005 Parliament saying that it was psephologically impossible for the Heir to Blair's Conservative Party to win an overall majority. I predicted a hung Parliament on the day that the 2017 General Election was called, and I stuck to that, entirely alone, all the way up to the publication of the exit poll eight long weeks later. And I say again that on the day that Sunak became Prime Minister, I predicted that a General Election between him and Starmer would result in a hung Parliament.

To strengthen families and communities by securing economic equality and international peace through the democratic political control of the means to those ends, including national and parliamentary sovereignty, we need to hold the balance of power. Owing nothing to either main party, we must be open to the better offer. There does, however, need to be a better offer. Not a lesser evil, which in any case the Labour Party is not.

Anonymous said...

SNP is having a shocker though…

Mike Phipps said...

Sound analysis. I err on the side of the caution here

David Lindsay said...

The Labour poll lead is eye-wateringly lower than it was in the autumn, yet it is still double the margin by which Labour "won" this week's local elections. That in turn was five points lower than its result at the 2017 General Election, which it did not win. There is still a year and a half of this relentless decline to go until the next General Election. There is going to be a hung Parliament.

Anonymous said...

Has the first post been stuck in a spam filter since 2019 or something?

In the actual real world, Labour have almost caught the once seemingly invincible SNP in the polls - not just that, but local by-election results have consistently been poor for the latter for a while now.