Political Insider – Local Elections
Following the recent local elections, MHP Public Affairs Nick Vaughan and Tom Messenger give their verdict on the results and what they mean for their parties.
Head of Public Affairs
Two weeks ago, Tories were briefing The Sunday Times that we were now looking at the end of Boris Johnson.
This weekend the paper was asking if his election-winning bubble would ever burst as he eyes a decade-long premiership on the back of last week’s triumphs.
Commentators are now asking if Labour can ever win power again with debuting Good Morning Britain host Alastair Campbell today being asked “what is the point of Labour?”
Voters are supposed to use by-elections to punish the incumbent government. This time they appear to have thanked them for the success of the vaccine roll-out.
Labour MPs blame “long Covid, long Brexit and long Corbyn”, complaining the pandemic has left politics in suspended animation for 18 months.
And pollsters marvel how Johnson, who first became an MP 20 years ago for a party that has now been in power for over a decade, has somehow reset the clock and is still seen as the change.
Engine MHP consultants, who have worked on election campaigns for all the main UK parties, today give their verdict on the results and what they mean for their parties.
These results mean that the countdown to a 2023 election is on
Despite eleven years of Conservative government, Boris Johnson still represents “change” in a lot of these newly won red wall seats from the 2019 general election.
The result in the Hartlepool by-election, the huge majority for Ben Houchen in Tees Valley and an overall gain of 235 seats – in places such as County Durham which had been under Labour control for more than 100 years – lends credence to the notion that the 2019 “Get Brexit Done” general election only 18 months ago represented a structural shift in the electorate which will be very difficult for Labour to unwrap anytime soon.
With a significant amount of investment about to be unleashed across the former ‘red wall’ – be that the Levelling Up Fund, Towns Fund, Whitehall moves or broader infrastructure spending, there will be no let-up in the Boris drive to ensure that these newly Conservative voters feel they were right to the lend him their vote.
Whilst many Conservatives will be feeling deeply uncomfortable with these levels of spending – be that strategy and / or the sums involved, Downing Street will be throwing the proverbial kitchen sink at these areas in the next couple of years. Houchen’s huge win (much of it based on the promise and delivery of new investment in jobs and infrastructure) will give them confidence that this has been the right strategy to adopt.
The Queen’s Speech this week will therefore be more of the same: “Build, Back, Better” – with a strong focus on skills, productivity and house building.
Whilst Shaun Bailey came much closer than many commentators had predicted, and the Conservatives won an extra seat on the GLA, party strategists do worry about their long-term decline in the capital. Indeed, polling continues to be relatively poor in urban, metropolitan areas which have a younger electorate who are less likely to own a home and more likely to have suffered most, economically, from COVID-19.
Similar to what Thatcher did in the 1980s with Right To Buy, Conservatives are hopeful of capturing this next generation with significant deregulation of the planning system with a strong tilt to home ownership.
Meanwhile, Conservative Council losses in some of the more affluent areas of the country – including Oxfordshire, Kent, the Isle of Wight and Cambridgeshire – demonstrate the difficulties in keeping such a large electoral coalition in place. Whilst looking to cement their gains in the ‘Red Wall’, Tory strategists will also need to focus on ensuring their base remains solid for the electoral contests to come.
Overall, however, with the Conservatives continuing to advance across the UK and with the prospect of a swift economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic now in sight, the results from this set of elections now make an early 2023 general election increasingly likely.
Nick joined MHP from 10 Downing Street where he was Special Advisor to the Prime Minister, responsible for operations. He worked on successive general elections which saw wins for the Conservatives in 2015, 2017 and 2019
Competence wasn’t enough for Starmer – now drastic action is required
During his leadership campaign, Keir Starmer frequently warned that if the Labour Party were to lose the next general election, it would be out of power for the longest stretch in its history. Last Thursday’s election results suggest the party has yet to take the drastic action required to prevent this warning from becoming a reality.
Labour approached these elections with trepidation, and with good reason.
The overriding priority for voters is to emerge from the pandemic and, on that basis, it isn’t surprising that the Conservatives, the SNP and Welsh Labour were all rewarded for successful vaccination programmes.
We also can’t underestimate the impact of the Government’s furlough policy, and the supposed panacea of regional investment to come, in driving Conservative support. Not to mention Boris Johnson’s continued personal appeal, particularly with these elections coming at a time when Starmer has yet to have the opportunity to even deliver a speech to a live audience.
It is also unreasonable to expect Starmer to have turned the Labour Party around from its worst defeat in 80 years in just over a year. The memory of why people failed to support Labour in December 2019, be that Corbyn or Brexit or a combination of the above, remains fresh for many.
Yet those excuses, while reasonable drivers for how many voted, cannot explain the scale of Labour’s continued retreat in many of the party’s former heartlands. Any future election campaign must include a more effective strategy to win back ‘red wall’ voters. The appointment of Deborah Mattinson, who literally wrote the book on these constituencies, as Labour’s new Head of Strategy is encouraging.
It’s nonetheless important to remember that the results on Thursday were not all bad for Labour.
The party did win the Mayoralty for the new West Yorkshire Combined Authority; gained the Mayoralties for the West of England, and Cambridgeshire and Peterborough from the Conservatives; increased their majority in the Senedd after 22 years in power; and exhibited increased support across the South of England.
(In a totemic result, Labour even gained Chipping Norton from the Conservatives on Oxfordshire County Council. John Prescott reportedly enjoyed saying ‘Labour Hove’ after the 1997 election. One wonders quite what he makes of ‘Labour Chipping Norton’ and ‘Conservative Hartlepool’.)
It is therefore odd that the leadership didn’t seek to capitalise on these gains, and the re-elections of the likes of Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan, and instead opted for a botched and hastily assembled reshuffle on Sunday.
The removal of Angela Rayner as Party Chair suggested, rightly or wrongly, that she was being used as a scapegoat for the poor results. The subsequent briefing and counter briefing then distracted attention from any of the positive Labour gains and remained the top story over Rachel Reeves being promoted to Shadow Chancellor – a move which may certainly prove more consequential in the years to come.
Keir Starmer was praised in his first year for returning competence to the Labour Party and steadying the ship. It feels decidedly rockier today. The plan has long been for the leadership to now, in its second year, present a positive vision to the country and shift to more of a general election footing. With potentially only two years to go, the responsibility now rests with Starmer to ensure that his initial warning doesn’t come to fruition.
Tom is a seasoned Labour Party activist, having campaigned across the country at every general election since 2010, including most recently in his home seat of Workington in the 2019 election.