We now have nearly a complete body, so the post-mortem is more convincing. What the elections show is that politics has been changed decisively by Brexit and the takeover of the Conservatives by Boris Johnson and his supporters. This new world offers challenges and opportunities for each of the five main political parties – the Conservatives, Labour, the SNP, the Lib Dems and the Greens.
One comment I am reading a lot of is how much these elections have been favourable to those in power, at least down to regional level. The Conservatives have done well in England, and in the Teesside and West Midlands mayoralties. Labour did well in Wales, Manchester and other big city mayoralties. The SNP did well in Scotland. Perhaps that is the influence of the covid-19 crisis. Perhaps that means that the winners are not as secure as some suggest. One aspect of this incumbency bonus is the naked way the Conservatives are using power in recently won seats in England to bring in local government spending. The voters have got the message, it appears, and don’t object; Labour complaints only draw attention to it.
The biggest winners are the Conservatives, who have consolidated their hold on formerly Labour areas in northern England and the Midlands, but not Wales. I have already written about this. It places the party in a formidable electoral position. The challenge has been well put by Matthew Parris in The Times. The party has been garnering support among people who see themselves as the rejected, society’s losers. Important though these people are, the policies they favour are not those that will be good for the country’s prosperity and wellbeing. They favour continuity and stability, if not pushing the clock back. Sooner or later this is going to create unbearable pressure at government level. They will either be unable to deliver on their promises to improve local conditions, in which case their voters will move on, or they succeed, in which case the politics of victimhood will play less well, and other parties will find the going easier. The two pronged attack that did for the Conservatives at the Euro elections in 2019 can do for them again – as both professionals and populists close in on either flank. For now the Prime Minister looks likely to bluff his way through this challenge, delivering cheery words but little in the way of substantive results. But the vulnerability remains. Meanwhile Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens were all able to chip away at the Tory hold in their southern heartlands where well-led locally.
One of the rituals of election post-mortems is commentators to have a go at the Labour Party, criticising it for not listening to its core supporters. Take this piece from Janice Turner in The Times again. And yes, I often join this chorus myself. But when most of these people accuse Labour of looking down on traditional supporters, they themselves look down on Labour’s core support, especially amongst “woke” public service professionals. It needs to be taken with salt. More interesting is the variation on the theme by John Harris in the Guardian, who accuses Labour of too often ignoring local community groups, to rebuild the civic infrastructure it lost when old industries went into decline. This is something that the party seemed to understand under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, and certainly was important to his effective deputy, John McDonnell, but it is being abandoned by the current leadership.
Labour finds itself in a tricky position. It must extend its base beyond those public-sector professionals and the “new” urban working classes, without abandoning core ideas, like multiculturalism, that are central to its hold on that existing base. I’m sure that Mr Harris is right and that local community politics is part of the answer. But it isn’t easy, and in places they will find that the Lib Dems or Greens will have got there first. Tricky strategic decisions lie ahead, but their position is far from hopeless. The results are not as bad as many are making but, but they do show that the Tory hold on the old “Red Wall” remains tight, in England at least.
The SNP are the other big winners. The challenge for them is clear: navigating the drive towards independence for Scotland. The idea of independence is popular in Scotland, but the hard reality is likely to be less so. Perhaps the UK government’s best strategy is to move the debate onto the nitty gritty and let the SNP get bogged down; but to do that it has to concede a referendum, though not perhaps the referendum that the SNP want. See this interesting article by David Herdson on political betting.com. Losing the last referendum was the best thing to happen to the SNP; that will not be the case for another one. But if the government refuses to concede a referendum, then the SNP will continue to control the agenda.
For the Lib Dems the elections produced mixed results, but hopeful signs outweighed the discouraging ones. The party is making headway against the Conservatives where it has local strength. The Tory drive for the old Labour heartlands increases its vulnerability in its own backyard. But no earthquakes. It is not yet clear how the party breaks through into national scene. The party does not have a sharp brand; this can help in Britain’s electoral system, as a sharp brand deters as well as attracts voters. In Scotland the party held onto all its first-past-the-post seats, and challenged hard for a further one. But it won no seats on the proportional list system. This is ironic for a party that is so keen on proportional representation.
The advantages of a clear brand are shown by the Greens, who generally did well. If Labour starts to dilute its appeal to younger and environmentally conscious voters, the Greens are more likely to benefit now than the Lib Dems. The Greens easily beat the Lib Dems in London, as well as Scotland (where they contested no first-past-the post seats). Still, their claim to be the third party of national politics is overdone. Their predicament is the opposite to that of the Lib Dems – trying to turn a strong national brand into something that wins them councils and parliamentary seats.
Should the non-Tory parties work together to challenge the Conservatives, outside Scotland at least? This can only be on the basis of changes to the electoral system and perhaps other constitutional changes. This has been done in New Zealand. But for that to be viable there needs to be a broad understanding in the public that the system is broken and needs to be changed. For all the whinging I see little evidence of this. Beyond a little sotto voce staying out of each others’ way at the next general election I don’t think this idea will get anywhere.
So the landscaper has changed, but we are only beginning to see where this is leading.