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A Tale of Two Englands

6 May 2022
| by Field Team

Following yesterday's local elections, votes are still being counted across England. So far, it is clear that national politics has had a part to play in this year's local elections but what could these elections ultimately mean for the future of the Conservatives and Labour? Read Field's Felix Shaw's analysis below.

The day after local elections can often seem like an anti-climax. After a late night waiting for the results to roll in, you wake up not really knowing much more than when you went to bed. With expectation management through the roof and varying local performances clouding the national picture, it’s always hard to get a clear sense of where the country’s heading to ahead of the next General Election that lots of people may want.

Beyond the spin, the clearest emerging narrative is one of continued national re-alignment. There is no doubt that Labour’s had a good night in London where the Party has seen unprecedented gains. Starting from an already high-water mark, Labour has confounded all expectations routing the Conservatives across the city. Gains in Wandsworth and Barnet were widely predicted but few saw Westminster going red for the first time in its history. All very impressive, but everyone knows Labour dominates London and dominating London doesn’t win general elections. 

Outside the capital, the results have been far more mixed for Labour. There’s been progress in parts of the South, with Southampton and Worthing being taken from the Conservatives, but again these are metropolitan enclaves, that like London have been shifting towards Labour for some time. It’s the Red Wall seats of the North and the Midlands where Labour needs to reverse its ongoing decline if it wants to make real progress. Here results have been more mixed, losing ground in places like Bolton, Oldham and Hartlepool and losing Hull to the Liberal Democrats. Victories in Rossendale and newly created unitary authorities in Cumbria will no doubt be used to sugar coat the performance, but overall Labour’s vote share across the north is down and this will be a source of deep frustration behind the scenes. 

Celebrations have also been dampened by the announcement that Keir Starmer will now be investigated by Durham Police in relation to lockdown rule breaking. Any gains made, no matter how small or large, will be for nothing if Starmer ends up being hit with a fine for Beergate and the pressure to resign that would entail.

Meanwhile for the Government, wild claims of potential losses in the 800s were always pretty crude attempts at expectation management, yet they may still prove effective. Boris will rightly get a kicking today for losing councils that have been under Conservative control for generations, but so far the worst of the losses are being limited to London, which has long since been written-off by the Party as a lost cause. With the Government able to point to the Red Wall, where its vote has held-up slightly better than expected, the chances of these elections spelling an end for Johnson’s premiership seem slim.

Special mention of course needs to be given to the Liberal Democrats, the biggest winners so far with almost twice as many seats gained as Labour. Their continued success in former Conservative heartlands such as South West London, West Oxfordshire and Tunbridge Wells, where they gained enough seats to take both councils into no overall control, is very much in the pattern of post-Brexit realignment. But making gains against Labour in Northern cities such as Hull wasn’t in the script and will be an encouraging sign that the party might finally be on track to reclaim some of their old power bases.

So, once again we’re left a set of local election results that can best be described as a mixed bag. One thing we can say with confidence is repeat these results at a General Election and we’re certainly not on course for a Conservative victory. But until Labour can start making real progress in the North, we’re not on course for a Labour majority either. One final point to consider is turnout, with low turnouts across the country pointing towards fed-up Conservative voters staying at home rather than switching. All parties will be looking at how they can get through to this group in the coming months and unlocking their votes may be the key to entering No.10.

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