Limping to Success LRB 26 May 2022
Early results matter in politics. The news on the morning of 6 May seemed to confirm a familiar story. Labor had taken two totemic Tory councils, Wandsworth and Westminster, piling on metropolitan voters but failing to ignite the electorate outside the cities. Tory losses were bigger than expected, and by the end of the day looked very bad indeed: the cumulative loss was 485 seats; before the election the Mail had warned that anything over four hundred should be seen as a ‘disaster’.
The Tories’ loss was so obvious that what has happened since seems puzzling. Many who had expected the Conservative collapse assumed that the party’s backbenchers would take the opportunity to dispatch Johnson in its wake. Some deposited council leaders did call for his head. But, so far, letters to the chair of the 1922 Committee don’t seem to be pouring in. Perhaps Tory MPs are persuaded by the implausible argument that changing leaders while Russia’s war in Ukraine continues would be irresponsible; or perhaps they are newly enthused by the prospect that Keir Starmer might be forced to resign over Beergate. Or maybe they read the success of the Liberal Democrats as a sign of returning political normality, and are seeking comfort in shopworn political wisdom: this is a midterm result, like 2003 or 2013, recoverable at the next general election; it’s unwise, after all, to base a national strategy on protest votes, or on a desultory turnout of people primarily concerned about bin collections. Other, cannier Tories might recognize that people can’t heat their homes with ever deferred promises of ‘levelling up’, or fill their stomachs with culture wars. Given the improbable geography of the Johnson majority, and the likelihood of recession and inflationary wage pressures before the next general election, Tory MPs of 2019 vintage would be fools to assume that the political volatility of the last several years is over.
If Tory MPs are sleeping surprisingly well it is also because there has been no flip to the other pole of British politics: these results were translated nationally they would result in a hung Parliament. Should the polls stay where they are, the next campaign will no doubt feature posters of Keir Starmer peering out of Nicola Sturgeon’s handbag. But Tory MPs should be wary of putting too much faith in myths about political change in Britain. First past the post electoral systems do often produce strong majorities, but in the 21st century significant shifts have been preceded by hung Parliaments: an element of stickiness persists in the system. Tories can take more comfort, perhaps, in the sense that the ideological architecture of British politics – what issues matter to the press, and the terms in which they can be talked about – remains stubbornly unipolar, especially when it comes to economics, immigration and crime. That conservatives of various stripes set the agenda sometimes leads non-Tories to dream of all non-conservative parties putting aside their differences and forming an electoral compact to dislodge the Tories from power. But it isn’t at all clear that voters en masse would be attracted to what could easily be painted as cartel politics.
Three interrelated stories emerged from the final results: the enduring importance of political geography, the re-emergence of third parties, and a dimming of the Brexit effect. The simplest part of the picture is the success of the Liberal Democrats, who gained 223 council seats. The Lib Dems topped the Tories in West Oxfordshire, which includes David Cameron’s old seat in Witney (though Witney itself voted Labour), and one of the major threats to a future Tory majority comes from the southern marginals once swept by Cameron’s party. Yet what should draw just as much attention is the performance of the greens. Since 2018 they have more than doubled their councillors in England, making 63 gains, including in areas – South Tyneside, Hastings – not typically associated with the party. They seem to have learned from the Liberal Democrats’ long experience in taking advantage of local political conditions, though the Greens still suffer under first past the post in progressive urban centers such as Lambeth, where their voters are under-represented. Had a right-wing populist party achieved something similar – sitting Ukip councilors were effectively obliterated in this election – the British press would have discovered in the results an urgent, previously unheard political demand. The Greens don’t have that luck: a difficult question for the party is whether its adaptability – sometimes, for example, it is able to modulate its politics through local hostility to development – renders it inchoate at a national level. Yet it is only at the national level that the Greens’ central political concerns can be properly grasped.
Outside England, the results in Britain cemented national divergences. Scottish Labor returned its best results in a decade, although they represent only a slight easing of the party’s nuclear winter (in 2012 it received 31.4 per cent of first preference votes; this time it was 21.7 per cent). Labour’s return to second place is an artefact of the cratering of the Tory vote after a brief surge under Ruth Davidson; Douglas Ross blamed Partygate, but the disappearance of the party’s sole likeable and competent leader played a more salient role. The SNP’s hegemony remains untroubled. In Wales, Labor made impressive advances. Mark Drakeford, the party’s leader in Wales, immediately capitalized by proposing – jointly with Plaid Cymru – further electoral reform to the Senedd. That idea remains taboo for Labor in Westminster: the party shares the Tories’ commitment to FPTP mostly out of inertia and inanition, but also because it still dreams of forming a strong majority and gaining untrammelled command of the state. Many of Labour’s strategists pride themselves on being hard-headed realists, steered above all by the facts. Here’s an inconvenient fact for them: the UK’s constituent nations have moved further apart. The national share projected on the basis of these elections looks similar to the profile of the 2005 general election, in which Blair won a majority of more than sixty seats. But without the Scottish seats it had then, Labor would find itself with a minority government at best.
The truly momentous event on 5 May was Sinn Féin’s victory in the Assembly elections in Northern Ireland. As Newsnight’s unusually honest and assiduous reporter Lewis Goodall put it in a clip widely shared on social media, this was a result that the North’s political constitution was once supposed to make impossible. It had been coming, however, and for three reasons: Sinn Féin’s modernization, gradual demographic changes in the North, and – more recently – the reinvention of Alliance as a liberal centrist force. The DUP’s blundering also played a key role: the £300 million left unspent in the wake of its withdrawal from government in February has featured in every other party’s campaign. Northern Ireland has the highest rate of economic inactivity and the lowest productivity in the UK; it also has the longest NHS waiting lists. The cost of living in crisis bites everywhere, but it is especially sharp here. The DUP’s objections to a Republican first minister have been replaced, since the election, by a refusal based on the Brexit protocol – which could delay the formation of a government, and the passing of a budget, for months. Commentary in Britain has focused on the prospect of a border poll: it’s true that these results make it thinkable, but they don’t make it likely anytime soon. Concerns closer to home – eating, heating, working – are more pressing. It is hard to imagine that voters will applaud Jeffrey Donaldson for blocking any chance to solve them. The government’s plan to rip up the protocol, which would probably plunge Britain into a recession, may give him the pretext for a climbdown.
A renewed conflict with Brussels may well also reanimate Brexit divides in England. For Labour, that would be ruinous. Concealed by its apparent stasis in England are signs that the party is profiting from voters repulsed by the Tories in government, including in its lost ‘Red Wall’ seats, where its share of the vote increased. There are reasons Labor doesn’t tell this story clearly. It requires admitting both that Corbyn’s Labor did well in 2018, when these seats were last in play, and that its results in 2019 were catastrophic. Every fact in the party dislikes one or other of these facts. Because of the successes of 2018, many of the reversions to Labor since 2019 – Kirklees, Wakefield, Bolton – don’t resonate as clearly as they might. Nor are they uniform: Grimsby remains lost and, outside the Red Wall, Dudley has embraced the Tories more closely. Taken with Labor victories in Leave-voting pockets of the South – Southampton, Worthing – the suggestion might be that the Brexit divide is waning. But however you look at it, this is not a picture of a party sweeping all before it: the humiliation of dire Labor administrations in Tower Hamlets and Croydon, and Bristol’s rejection of its high-handed Labor mayor – it voted to abolish the office altogether – do not suggest widespread enthusiasm. Labor has limped to success through Tory failure. It is a poor basis for hope.
Councilors are often annoyed by journalists’ habit of interpreting local results through a national lens. It isn’t just laziness: Britain does have a centralized power structure and weak councils. Constrained though they are, however, councils are not powerless. Labor policy may be in a deep freeze at national level, but some of its new councils have distinctive plans. Wandsworth’s campaign focused heavily on a council housing revolution to counterbalance the luxury glass acreage in the north of the borough. On the diminished Labor left, the Preston Model of insourcing and local regeneration still holds pride of place; adapting municipal socialism of this kind in a prosperous London borough will take ingenuity and careful strategic thought, not least to avoid spooking tax-sensitive local liberals. Even so, that such plans could even be considered in a borough once thought of as a laboratory for Thatcherism marks an enduring shift in English urban politics.
At a national level, though, the immediate future looks grim. Any political profit Labor might have turned from the elections has evaporated in the face of Beergate; now that Starmer has offered up his career as a hostage to Durham Constabulary, there will be weeks of press agitation as the investigation spins on. Even if he escapes a fine, the narrative will be either that he lent on the police, or that he has dodged resignation on a technicality. Every second spent on this is time not spent on the cost of living crisis, the single issue most likely to dislodge Johnson’s government. Starmer must know this, as he must also know that 1.3 million people will fall into absolute poverty this year, that 40 per cent of Britons will face fuel poverty, and that 6.8 million Britons already skip meals or eat less than they need.
The Tories should be worried, all the same, about the contents of the Queen’s Speech. The government’s legislative program is thin, and targeted solely at its core voters. One official briefed that the time of ‘pain relief’ for the cost of living was over, and that it is now time for the ‘surgery the economy needs’. The bill on workers’ rights promised twenty times over has disappeared; promises to steamroller nimbyism in housing development have vanished and the manifesto promise to build 300,000 new homes a year has been abandoned. The proposed rolling back of human rights, clampdowns on protesters and asylum seekers, the privatization of Channel 4: these are signs of a party out of ideas, disconnected from the real world, and running on autopilot.