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Artillery Row

Red dawn

Following the locals, a shattered Conservative party will need to get used to losing

There were remarkably few features of last week’s elections that will have given much encouragement to the Conservatives. Ben Houchen’s win in Tees Valley was a singular achievement — even then, it came despite a large swing against him since his landslide in 2021. The party managed to hold on to the Town Hall in Harlow, by a single seat, despite Labour polling slightly more votes.

Beyond this solitary straw, there wasn’t much else to grasp at. Isaac Levido has been trying to encourage a fighting spirit among Conservative MPs by pointing to projections of a hung parliament based on strained extrapolations from national-level modelling. Most of the political science profession will have winced at his sideswipe against Sir John Curtice, a sin comparable to bad-mouthing the Pope during Mass, and declined to support that projection. Even his audience will have contained many Tories who have done the arithmetic in their own constituencies and know that their consultant is whistling in the dark. 

The further down Labour’s target list, the higher the swing. Seats like Cannock Chase (2019 Conservative majority: 19,879) and South Basildon and East Thurrock (2019 Conservative majority: 19,922) had Labour ahead in the local voting even before one starts to adjust for all the ways in which local elections can diverge from general elections. There are a handful of lucky MPs with marginal seats whose local number-crunching will have brought joy, but even in these cases the pleasure will be tempered by the low Conservative share of the vote and the possibility that the people who voted for Lib Dem or Green council candidates will line up tactically behind Labour come the general election.

What happened was not realignment, but dealignment

The swing to Labour in Blackpool South was enormous — 26 per cent, the third biggest since 1945. Keir Starmer’s Labour has gained five seats on 20-point plus swings in by-elections in this Parliament, a record for any opposition — Blair and Thatcher could only claim two each, and Heath only one despite the fierce unpopularity of Wilson’s 1966-70 government. Turnout was low, true, and the backdrop to the election unhelpful for the Tories, but the disappearance of four Tory voters in five in Blackpool sends a message of its own. There weren’t “bad men” forcing the voters to stay indoors on polling day.

Labour’s share of the vote in the local elections was, it is true, lower than it was in the heyday of Tony Blair in 1995-96. That balmy period, and blips in 1971 and 1990, aside, Labour has tended not to win overwhelming mandates in local elections and that is fair grounds for thinking that perhaps the landslide of 1997 is not about to be repeated. But the local election landscape has also altered, with Greens and others taking votes from Labour’s left flank as well as the Lib Dems doing their pavement politics campaigning with ever-increasing targeted sophistication. A 7-9 point lead in 2024 is probably equivalent to around 12 points in old money, which starts to put it on a par with 1996 if not the improbable red dawn of 1995 when Braintree and Canvey Island marched to the polls for Labour.

In 2019-21 it was plausible to talk in terms of a realignment, in which previously stubbornly Labour constituencies had gone over to the Conservatives for good. The original meaning of the famous “Red Wall”, as perspicaciously identified by the political analyst James Kanagasooriam, was a set of constituencies that by their demographic composition should not have been voting Labour when the Conservatives had a national lead — home ownership, incomes and employment patterns pointed one way but something in the local culture took them the other way. Many of them did fall in 2019. 

To me, there seemed to be two waves of switching to the Tories. There was a Midlands marginal contingent in 2010 led by Cannock Chase and covering a swathe of smaller towns and semi-rural territory which swung further in 2015 and produced monster Tory majorities in 2019, plus the group generally further north in which Labour’s majority ebbed and was finally overturned in 2019. The surprise should not be that the second group are still marginal — the majorities were generally small — but that the first group seem to be back in play. 

What happened was not realignment, but dealignment. The voters of the Red Wall, and as it turns out an earlier set of switchers too, were not transformed from loyal Labour voters into Tories, but into swing voters. The upside for the Tories is that Labour cannot take the rebuilt Red Wall for granted in future elections, although incumbency is powerful for a while — Tony Blair was holding those picky, volatile Midland seats even as his national ascendancy was dimming in 2005.

Labour’s poor results — and even when a party is ahead, local factors create some pockets of discomfort — were mostly on its left flank, and severe enough to dent the party’s national lead by a point or two. The party has been shedding middle class left wing support to the Greens since it replaced Corbyn with Starmer; the results in Bristol and Hastings were particularly dramatic but it is a general phenomenon. The parts of cities where the educated professionals live tended to vote Conservative in local elections up until the 1990s, spent the period until the Coalition wavering between Lib Dem and Labour, and are now battlegrounds between Labour and the Greens. A Labour government that becomes unpopular, particularly one which has focused more on traditional Labour politics of class equality and redistribution, may find itself losing the Latin Quarters very quickly, at least in local elections.

A lot more Conservatives will soon have to maintain dignity in defeat

The new source of leakage of Labour votes in May 2024 was in wards with large Muslim communities, where Labour vote shares fell in some of them by 30 or 40 percentage points. This follows the resignation of more than 50 Labour councillors, a revolt comparable with nothing since the creation of the SDP in 1981. The principal reason was Gaza, but the scale of the unease suggests that there is a deeper lack of communication between the party leadership and one of its hitherto more loyal groups of voters. Some of my readers may find themselves agreeing with Trevor Phillips that “we are not used to people choosing their politics based on who and what they are. Their religion or their race or anything like that.” But it is an age-old phenomenon; class solidarity created monolithic votes in mining communities, the Irish (Catholic) vote was a factor throughout the high days of the Victorian party system and sectarian loyalties structured the politics of Glasgow and Liverpool into the second half of the 20th Century. 

Independent Gaza candidates did considerably better than those who had adopted the brand of George Galloway’s Workers’ Party. The saving grace for Labour is that this makes the election setbacks a family quarrel rather than a parting of the ways. The life of an Independent is a lonely one, and as the day to day politics of the council chamber asserts itself many of the Independents will probably find themselves drifting back to Labour. The council election results, and the strength of the Independent Akhmed Yakoob in the West Midlands mayoral election, suggest that Labour could lose in a handful of hitherto safe seats where the alchemy of community and international politics, and the presence of a plausible candidate, come together. But whether it will draw off many votes in many of the marginals contested between Labour and the Conservatives is doubtful.

The mayoral elections were interesting in themselves, even if they were not the best indicator of wider party fortunes. The two new posts — East Midlands and North Yorkshire — produced the sort of result that you would expect from the national polls, but in existing mayoralties incumbents did well. Mayors, unusually for politicians in the current climate, tend to be associated with achievements that one can point to — development for Houchen in Tees Valley and Andy Street in West Midlands, better buses for Andy Burnham in Manchester — and a sense that someone is speaking for the people of the areas that mayors represent. 

The Conservatives will have many lessons to learn from Street — about how to build a broad electoral coalition, how to relate to the big cities, how to appeal to that portion of the electorate under the age of 70. But the first lesson will be drawn from Street’s modest, touching concession speech in Birmingham on Saturday: a lot more Conservatives will soon have to maintain dignity in defeat, turn over the seals of office and wish their successors well.

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