Little to get excited about
As predicted, the Tories suffered losses, writes Eddie Ford. But Sir Keir has made no obvious progress - and nor has what passes for the left
This year’s local elections did not produce any major surprises - not that anyone was really expecting a huge Labour breakthrough. Before the elections, The Daily Telegraph published a poll saying the Tories would lose 810 seats in England and Wales, but that was clearly an exercise in expectation management - hey, we did not do so badly after all for a midterm governing party.
In the end, with 4,411 council seats up for grabs, the Tories suffered a net loss of 487 seats, whilst the Labour Party gained 108. The Liberal Democrats and Greens too made progress, winning 222 and 87 seats respectively, especially in the south - making some sort of inroads into the so-called Blue Wall. As for the Scottish National Party, it gained 22 seats, while Plaid Cymru lost six. In terms of the popular vote, Labour got 35%, Tory 30%, and Lib Dems 19%. So if you want to play fantasy politics and forget that we have a ‘first past the post’ system, that would have resulted in a hung parliament, with Labour on 291, Conservatives 253, Lib Dems 31 and others 75. But this is all nonsense, of course. General elections are somewhat different from local elections, given that most people shy away from protest politics and choose a government instead.
Overall, while the losses were certainly bad for Boris Johnson, there was nothing to suggest yet that Keir Starmer is building up the momentum needed to secure him a parliamentary majority in a general election. In the 2018 local elections, it should be remembered, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party made gains in London at the expense of the Tories, who in turn made gains in the rest of England at the expense of the UK Independence Party. In this context, it is worthwhile pointing out - without wanting to read too much into the tea leaves - that Starmer performed worse than Jeremy Corbyn in the local elections outside London, at least according to the election ‘guru’, professor John Curtice.1 That is, Labour’s share of the vote and numbers of seats won outside the capital was actually lower than 2018. In Curtice’s opinion, there was “very little sign” of the party making progress in the Brexit-backing areas of the north and Midlands, which fell to the Tories in 2019, when the ‘Red Wall’ started to disintegrate. Yes, says Curtice, Labour needs to do well in London to win elections, but painting the capital even more ‘red’ than it was before is not sufficient - it has to reclaim the ground that it has been losing further north.
Then again, with warnings from the Bank of England about an impending recession and possibly a very protracted war in Ukraine, leading to global food shortages, events and politics can change very quickly indeed.
The results in London were more interesting than the rest of England. With all the London borough councillor seats being contested, along with elections for five directly-elected mayors, Labour got 43.9% of the popular vote, with the Tories on 28.8%, Lib Dems 13% and Greens 8.6%. This meant Labour gained majority control of the former Tory flagships of Wandsworth and Westminster - with Starmer inevitably claiming it as a “historic” victory. Labour also took the suburban redoubt of Barnet with its large Jewish population, which Starmer would regard as an ideological victory in the ‘war against anti-Semitism’ and the Corbyn legacy - doubling down on the slander that anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism. However, Labour also lost Croydon to no overall control, where the Conservative candidate, Jason Perry, won the newly created mayoralty. The Tories also gained Harrow council. Of the four existing mayoralties, Labour held three, but lost in Tower Hamlets to Lutfur Rahman - founder of Aspire, a purely local party that gained majority control by winning 24 of the council’s 45 seats.2
In some ways, this was the most surprising election of the night. As anybody who has been there will tell you, Tower Hamlets is very British-Bengali - hence the election (or re-election) of Rahman, a former Labour leader of the council from 2008 to 2010. After allegations of links to a fundamentalist group, he was booted out of Labour and then re-elected at the 2014 mayoral election as the candidate for Tower Hamlets First. But the result was declared null and void the following year by the Election Court, which found him “personally guilty” of “corrupt or illegal practices, or both”. Rahman and his supporters were found to have used “religious intimidation” through local imams, “vote-rigging” as well as “falsely branding” his Labour rival as racist to gain power. Rahman never faced a proper criminal court before judge and jury, but was, nonetheless, disqualified from holding electoral office for five years. Now he’s back.
When it comes to Scotland, Labour performed reasonably well, particularly in Glasgow, pushing the Tories into third place - but that is not saying much, as they are still way behind the SNP. After 15 years in power, on a 43% voter turnout, the SNP increased its tally by 22 - which is hardly earth-shattering - with Labour gaining 20, the Lib Dems 20 and the Greens 16. Perhaps a more accurate framing of the results in Scotland is to say that the Tories have stopped making progress, rather than Labour advancing. Regarding Wales, the Conservatives lost over a third of their seats, while Labour gained. Once again, nobody did particularly badly or especially well.
That said, what passed for the left in these elections certainly did not do well, only badly. In two seats Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition candidates came in second place behind Labour (in Seven Kings and Knowsley), while eight got over 5% of the vote. But for the rest it was a case of statistical marginality to the point of being barely detectable … and that on the basis of thoroughly economistic politics. The candidates of the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain and George Galloway’s Workers Party of Britain were no exception. True, Momentum boasts of 100 councillors, however the vast majority of them are sitting councillors who are barely distinguishable politically from the Labour right - and the Tories for that matter.
Obviously, the cost of living crisis had a big impact on the local elections. According to polling of those who voted Tory in 2019 but not this year, 81% said the cost of living was among the most important issues. That is not surprising, when you consider, as new research from the Food Foundation has found, that more than seven million adults are living in households that are “food insecure” - ie, are unable to buy enough food and sometimes miss a meal. ‘Partygate’ was also another significant factor, it goes without saying. Many Tories opted to stay at home rather than vote.
But, for all that, allies of Boris Johnson said he was “very upbeat”. Some of them responded to the London results by suggesting that they did not really matter, because the city was the ‘cultural enemy’ anyway. Thus one Tory said to Times Radio that doing well in London “is not going to bode well” for Labour”, because it will “reinforce the notion in working class people’s eyes that they are now the party of the metropolitan elite”.3 Another Tory official said, “the fact Labour lost Hull but won Mayfair tells you all you need to know about them”. Perhaps it is rather ironic that the man who was the capital’s two-term mayor now employs people who treat Londoners with such contempt.
Nor is there any hint whatsoever that Johnson is worried about Partygate or phased by the idea of getting wrapped over the knuckles again by the police. Even if he is fined a second or third time, his close colleagues do not expect him to quit - one saying that Boris had told him, “You’ll need a flamethrower to get me out”. And, of course, the local election results did not sink Boris Johnson, even if they did not entirely rescue him either. Senior Tories have grumbled, but, in the words of one despondent former Tory cabinet minister, they were “at the lower end of barely acceptable” - there was no clamour for him to quit. As far as we can tell, there have been no calls for a vote of no confidence - a rebellion by Tory MPs right now is looking unlikely. Johnson’s spirits must also have lifted when he heard the announcement by the Durham police force that it was investigating “potential breaches” of Covid-19 regulations during a gathering with party workers in April 2021 involving Keir Starmer - the tiresomely named ‘beergate’ event.
Almost Johnson-like, Starmer insisted from the beginning that there was no party - he and his staffers were working in the office and merely stopped for something to eat and drink. Feeling the pressure, with tense deliberations within the party, Starmer and Angela Rayner - the deputy leader who was also at the event - issued statements saying they would do the “right thing” and resign if given a penalty fine by the police. Unsurprisingly, some of their fellow shadow ministers were unhappy about the move, one saying that, “once you start talking up the prospect of your own resignation, you are on dangerous ground”. But in reality, having demanded that Boris Johnson must resign even before the police handed out a fine, he and Rayner had no choice if they wanted to avoid charges of gross hypocrisy. If Starmer does get fined by Durham police, his position would surely be untenable - he would have to quit.
If Starmer suddenly had to go, rule changes pushed through at last year’s conference mean that any candidate for the party leadership must be nominated by a fifth of MPs in order for them to be put to a membership vote - a higher threshold than the one which saw Jeremy Corbyn get enough nominations to strand for the leadership in 2015. The rule change was clearly intended to disadvantage the Labour left, insofar as it continues to exist.
If Starmer does resign, there is no obvious interim leader. The most senior members of Starmer’s shadow cabinet - Rachel Reeves, Yvette Cooper, David Lammy, Wes Streeting and Lisa Nandy - are all potential candidates. In the meantime, the party’s national executive committee would presumably have to appoint a temporary leader.