By Chris Roberts, Senior Associate
A week on from the local elections, it is still tempting to conclude that the headline verdict of the British people was “none of the above”.
In the week since, we have a Conservative Queen’s Speech more focused on identifying wedge, or ‘dog-whistle’ policies in the hope of resuscitating some of its 2019 coalition of voters, than directly addressing concerns over the cost of living and levels of inflation, not seen since the days of Margaret Thatcher.
At the same time, the Leader of the Opposition has threatened to resign if fined over the gathering where he was photographed eating curry and drinking beer during a by-election campaign.
It is tempting to chase these new shiny spotlights and cast aside the local election results, but I’ve always found a few days of reflection after the headlines a useful exercise.
These results were awful for the Conservatives. On any analysis, the loss of the flagship authorities of Westminster and Wandsworth was big. Not even Tony Blair could knock these councils over and while some demographic change may have made the latter an easier challenge than back then, the loss of Westminster was a genuine shock.
Many Tories have now written off London as unwinnable and alien territory, observing present voting patterns as reflective of a post-Brexit backlash of Remainers.
The results certainly do project the sense that the embers of Brexit are still prevalent in some locales and the Queen’s Speech is set to attempt to fan the flames over the Northern Ireland protocol.
Brexit of course threw up apparent anomalies of Tories winning seats in the North, while Labour won the parliamentary seats of Kensington and Canterbury, you can read some of this into the latest results.
However, I think there are more forces at play. Brexit, especially in the so-called ‘Red Wall’ of traditionally Labour voting seats is not over and the Prime Minister’s people know it. They also know that his personal route to survival is to feed the narrative that the South is, at least, temporarily ‘lost’ to the party in a fog of ‘remainerism’. If that is true, then only Boris can win the North will be the line of argument to try to keep him in office.
Looking at the raw results, with some stunning exceptions (Cumberland), Labour cannot be said to have reversed its losses in the North last week. It can, broadly, however, be said to have stopped the drift. Small comfort perhaps, but better than where the Tories find themselves in the South, where the post-Brexit haemorrhaging continues. We should note though, that Labour continued to lose ground in a number of industrial Midland areas, outside Birmingham. This is the really difficult territory for Labour to recover.
The questions for the two main parties depend upon what you accept as the reason to explain the pattern of results. While it is easy to analyse them in a context of Brexit, it also seems very lazy.
In the South, Boris Johnson was toxic. There was a real sense that voters had passed a final judgement on him. Tory voters seemed ashamed and embarrassed about their party. If true, it is not possible to recover from this. As someone once said, people will forget what you said, and even forget what you did, but they will never forget how you made them feel. For many, Johnson makes them feel grubby and soiled.
Second, last week saw the beginning, I believe, of tactical voting. Labour gained votes in London and lost ground elsewhere in the South, where the Liberal Democrats performed well. I detected a sense, last seen in the mid-1990s, of voters moving towards whoever could unseat the Tory and they did not mind if this was Labour, Liberal Democrat, or Green.
In the North and Midlands, however, challenges remain to unseat the new Tories. Labour just about did alright to suggest progress, but it needs to reflect urgently whether it is reaching the hearts of these voters.
For too many, Labour is still perceived as remote and too metropolitan for ‘ordinary folk’ and it will not win these seats back if the party finds itself on the wrong side of a culture war.
The Queen’s Speech suggests the Tories are already in election mode and will press the cultural buttons most strongly. The danger of this approach is that it positions the Tory party as more concerned with the privatisation of Channel 4, than the cost-of-living crisis and the real needs of voters.
This indeed may well be where the next election is fought, perhaps to the frustration of the public. Football commentators refer sometimes to ‘a game of two halves’ (isn’t it always?).
The next General Election may well be one of two campaigns barely speaking, let alone debating with one another. One pitched to our perceived national and cultural identity; the other to the wider needs of the economy and society.
Labour will not win if it fails to relate on a personal level with voters in the North and Midlands. Similarly, the Tories cannot hold office if the verdict in the South is that Johnson is beyond the pale and has now become too toxic.
The results last week suggested a hung parliament above all other outcomes. With tactical voting seemingly back with us, this poses more challenges for the Government.
Outside the DUP, it is unlikely the Tories will find any friends to support their candidate for Prime Minister in a hung parliament, especially if that candidate is Boris Johnson.