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Trouble beneath the surface

Labour’s triumph obscures worrying signs of division and chaos brewing in British society

The local election results are coming in. On the surface at least, all is a blissful calm pond of Labour triumph with any lingering Tory hopes sinking softly beneath the waves. As of the time of writing, Labour has taken control of 70 councils, some for the very first time. The Tories, meanwhile, have lost control of 124 councils. All eyes are on the next election, with one poll predicting an extraordinary 403 seats for Labour, which would give it a commanding majority in Parliament. 

When Starmer stood up this morning in Blackpool South, where Labour won the byelection with 58 per cent of the vote, it was hard to argue with him when he said voters were “fed up with your [the Conservative Party’s] decline, your chaos of your division and we want change. We want to go forward with Labour.”

New divisions are at work in Britain, ones that fall along the toxic faultlines of race, culture, class and religion

But beneath the smooth surface of Labour success, darker shapes could be seen moving the waters. A key factor in the by-election result that Starmer was cheering as the voice of the nation was a rightwing vote nearly precisely split between the Conservatives and Reform UK, with the latter finishing just 100 votes behind the Tories. Reform has been rising in the polls steadily since last summer — a year ago its support stood at 6 per cent nationwide, according to the latest polling, it now commands the support of 12 per cent of the country.

With a vastly diminished and discredited Conservative Party poised to stumble brokenly out of the next election, space for a party of the populist right will open up, and Reform is only one of the forces that may rush into it. 

The fractures facing Labour, as I recently discussed in the pages of the Critic, are far more serious than their immediate electoral prospects may suggest. One of the rare bits of bad news for Labour from the locals has been the loss of Oldham council, where, in a repeat of Rochdale, Starmer’s support for Israel and an unaddressed pattern of child sexual abuse by Muslim men saw support tumble amongst both the white working class and the Muslim community. 

New divisions are at work in Britain, ones that fall along the toxic faultlines of race, culture, class and religion. Even Labour’s most dramatic gains may spell future trouble. The party has done extraordinarily well amongst Brexit-voting regions and populations, such as Hartlepool and Thurrock, and has even taken traditional Tory stronghold Rushmoor, home of the British Army, for the first time in the council’s history. Like Boris’s 2019 incursion into Labour heartlands, the acquisition of new voters is not a sign of an epochal swing, but rather of an unstable British politics, in which voters are increasingly disconnected from party loyalty, and mistrustful of politicians. 

Starmer, like Boris, has managed to appeal to voters discontented with a globalisation that has ravaged British industry and seen millions of workers imported into the country even as wages have shrunk and growth slowed. But his lead on the question of migration, largely the product of Tory failure and loss of credibility following illegal migrants being dumped into working class communities, is extremely fragile. His criticism of a migration-led Tory growth policy is welcome, but he has refused to rule out employing it himself and has made no concrete promises on issues of migration and national sovereignty and security in the economic realm. 

These new voters have embraced Labour, but they may abandon the party as swiftly as they did the Tories after the triumph of 2019. The signs of trouble are already here, and if Labour imitates the arrogance and complacency of the Conservatives, and ignores their new voters, the party’s time in office may be nasty, brutish and short. 

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