Don’t underestimate Tories

Tom Miller says the May local elections were bad for the Tories, but saw no Labour surge

Amidst scandal and strife, the Tory government faced local elections across the UK on 5th May. 2022 is a bumper year. Most councils elect one councillor per ward in election years, with wards having two or three seats in rotation. Every four years, however, London joins the fun with its traditional ‘all out’ elections across 32 boroughs, and this was one such occasion.

Labour faced an uphill challenge, considering the numbers. Under Jeremy Corbyn in 2018, Labour was riding high on the back of the progress made in the general election result in December 2017. It had benefitted from an 8% swing since four years before, when it gained 79 councillors. The same seats were up for election again in 2022, leaving Labour with a tough hill to climb. In theory, the Tories should have been in for an easier game. In 2018, they had a 3% swing against them and lost 35 councillors.

What transpired this year cannot be separated from the Partygate scandal that has unfolded around Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak. It was impossible for activists to make it down a small street without voters expressing anger at what they sometimes felt as a personal betrayal, given how many have suffered loss and detriment during the pandemic.

The Tories suffered a 6% swing against them, losing 485 councillors, and in the process managing to lose control of 11 councils. Labour made solid if modest advances, context considered, with 108 councillors and 5 councils gained, and an additional council (Crawley) falling to Labour in a by-election a month later on 9th June.

The top performers in the local elections were really the Liberal Democrats, who, despite only a 2% swing in their favour (compared to Labour’s 6% swing), gained over twice the number of seats (224) and three councils. The Lib Dem vote is becoming more efficiently spread. Where they have struggled against Labour opponents who will not let anybody forget their ruinous choices during the coalition era, they are ploughing a much more fertile furrow in the Tory ‘blue wall’ in the South West and South East.

While there has been press (and Tory) speculation about deals between Labour and the Lib Dems, this claim is pretty much bereft of evidence. Dreams on some parts of the left about a formal ‘progressive alliance’ still seem a long way off. Labour voters who might have voted Lib Dem in the early 2000s are still repulsed by the legacy of austerity, and much will depend on how the Lib Dems decide to play the growing economic conflict between workers and bosses over pay and inflation.

Formalities around this situation may be a red herring. In a situation where Labour and the Lib Dems mutually profit by focussing activists and resources in different areas, both parties keeping a close eye on where their cards are played could make an enormous difference regardless of any dialogue, let alone co-operation. Between them, the two parties concluded their local election campaigns with 332 more councillors, giving Mr Johnson a bloody nose.

The next strategic question for Labour is how it will deal with one simple fact: it is not doing enough on its own.

The party has a suite of policies that are not passing the doorstep tests of recognisability and identification. For every voter pleased with how Starmer has corrected some of Corbynism’s mistakes, there is another who feels a lack of inspiration or ambition, characteristics that are essential in political leadership. Labour is making modest progress, but is reliant on a Lib Dem recovery in the areas it can’t reach. The full extent of what both parties have in common, along with the Greens and the nationalist parties, is a self-combusting Tory opposition. But just as Labour offers steady but not compelling leadership electorally or politically, there is also no unified anti-Tory campaign or cultural bloc to complement it, unless one counts Dominic Cummings’ Twitter feed.

The Tories can’t be underestimated. Their leadership are masters of political escapology, are masterful bullshitters, and they remain well funded and organised. They did not do badly everywhere, taking councils in London like Harrow and Croydon, and after every successful local election campaign for opposition parties, we can be sure that the polls will narrow.

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