“Super Thursday” Elections in the UK

Photograph Source: Chatham House – CC BY 2.0

“Boris deserves nice curtains given what he’s been through with Covid”.

Voter in the north of England

“You can’t expect people to vote for you in an election but not tell them why”

John McDonnell (shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer under Jeremy Corbyn)

Last Thursday voters in every part of the UK, with the exception of Northern Ireland, went to the polls in the largest assessment, however imprecise that may be, of political opinion since the 2019 general election.

The polls combined 2020 and 2021 elections, the former postponed due to the pandemic, and at stake were 4,600 seats across 143 councils, taking in metropolitan, unitary, county and district councils.

The results were largely in line with predictions made by the opinion polls.

Labour’s most prominent defeat was in the election for a new MP for Hartlepool. This election was triggered after the Labour MP Mike Hill resigned during a parliamentary investigation into alleged sexual harassment.

Labour held this seat since it was created in 1974 (including 2017 and 2019, when Jeremy Corbyn was party leader), but the Tories won Hartlepool after a 16-point swing— notwithstanding 11 years of Tory austerity, and a Tory leader who is a proven liar with a long-standing reputation for sleaze and corruption.

Labour was on the wrong foot from the beginning in Hartlepool— its candidate, Paul Williams, is a staunch anti-Brexiter, and to put him up in a constituency where 70% voted for Brexit was simply not the best tactical move. Williams was parachuted into the constituency by Labour HQ, and the local party had no say in the matter. Williams, a doctor, campaigned on bringing back services to a local hospital he had recommended for reduction when he was a local commissioner. Apparently, this irony was not lost on Hartlepool’s voters.

In addition to losing Hartlepool, Labour had a net loss of 6 councils and more than 200 seats in the elections.

The elections for the Scottish parliament produced no surprises. The ruling party, the Scottish National Party (SNP), won 64 seats, falling just short of an absolute majority by 1 seat. However, with the pro-independence Greens securing 8 seats, there is a mandate for a new independence referendum – this will put the SNP at loggerheads with the UK government, the latter having said it will refuse this referendum.

The prime minister Boris “BoJo” Johnson has called for an immediate summit with the SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon.

Wales, like Scotland, has a parliament, the Senedd. Labour won half of the 60 seats, with the Conservative’s winning 16, and the pro-independence party Plaid Cymru 13. Labour will continue to lead the devolved administration, as it has done since the first election in 1999. Labour was helped by the standing of its leader in Wales, Mark Drakeford, the incumbent first minister, whose handling of the Covid pandemic has been seen to be far superior to the lacklustre leadership on this issue provided by BoJo (now going by the soubriquet “Cash for Curtains” after his most recent corruption scandal).

London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, the Labour incumbent, won his election by securing 55.2% of the vote, while his Conservative opponent came second at 44.8%. London is now a firmly Labour city, Khan is believed to have done a reasonably good job in his first term, and the only doubt was always going to be the size of his majority.

The mayor of Greater Manchester, Labour’s Andy Burnham, was re-elected with 67.3% of the vote, with his Conservative opponent coming second at 19.6%. Burnham, the former Labour health secretary, is renowned for his defiant stance against the government during Greater Manchester’s second Covid wave at the end of last year, and this made his re-election a shoo-in.

Despite the drubbing Labour received overall, it won 11 of the 13 mayoral races. In addition to London, Greater Manchester, and Wales, it also won the Liverpool city region, Liverpool itself (the new mayor is Liverpool’s first woman and first black person to become mayor in its history), the northern town of Salford, and the northern rust-belt town of Preston, the latter getting attention in the past few years for the “Preston Model”, a distinctive form of municipal localism, learning some lessons from the US city of Cleveland, involving the integration of community, cooperative, and public assets into a mutually sustaining system.

Also taking place in England and Wales were elections for 39 police and crime commissioners (PCCs)—these are officials with oversight of their local police forces.

Labour’s trouncing had an immediate fall-out. Its leader Keir Starmer had said he would take “full responsibility” for his party’s poor performance, but his first response was to try to sack Angela Rayner, the party chair who was coordinating Labour’s election campaign. Rayner’s supporters say the campaign was run out of Starmer’s office, and that she was a mere PR figurehead for the election.

Rayner, with a working-class background and an MP since 2015, was previously a supporter of Jeremy Corbyn, but as a member of her party’s “pragmatic left” decided to become a backer of Starmer, who obviously now views this ex-Corbynite as an expedient scapegoat for Labour’s failings.

The backlash at the news of Rayner’s possible sacking was immediate and furious, and Starmer had to backtrack by making Rayner shadow chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster as well as appointing her to the newly created post of shadow secretary for the future of work.

Rayner will retain her post as Labour’s deputy leader (this position is decided by a vote of party members), which gives her an independent mandate. Having seen Starmer’s attempt to throw Rayner under the bus, hopefully other Labour “pragmatic leftists” will be more circumspect about giving him their support.

Like his mentor Tony Blair, Starmer has shown he may not be entirely trustworthy.

Moreover, Starmer’s campaigning strategy was unbelievably threadbare— it consisted in saying to voters “I’m not Tory” and “Labour is under new leadership”, without announcing any policy proposals showing what this would entail (hence the above-mentioned observation by John McDonnell). Starmer insisted Labour candidates display their “patriotism” by highlighting the Union Jack in their campaigns, but clearly this pantomime British Empire Tribute Act did not impress many voters.

Starmer, a distinguished lawyer (for which he was awarded his knighthood) before he entered politics, wipes the floor in parliamentary debate with “Cash for Curtains” BoJo. Apart from that, his opposition to the Tories has been milquetoast. His main parliamentary strategy has been to require Labour MPs to abstain (rather than oppose) when Tory legislative proposals are voted on, leading him to be nicknamed “Sir Tory Abstainer” in social media.

The skill in mastering a legal brief in courtrooms is not translating so far into the ability to communicate clearly and persuasively with a larger public, and Starmer’s campaign appearances, by general consensus, were wooden, robotic, and formulaic.

Having tried to give Rayner the boot, Starmer’s next step was to have a meaningless shadow cabinet reshuffle.

Already there is media speculation about Starmer’s replacement before the 2024 general election.

This speculation is gratuitous for now. Only a run of Labour losses in future by-elections will pose this issue seriously, unless an unforeseen disaster happens before then.

Starmer’s first test will be an upcoming parliamentary election triggered by the Labour MP Tracy Brabin winning the contest for West Yorkshire mayor and having to vacate her parliamentary seat as a result. If this seat is lost to the Tories, Starmer’s position as leader would become even more precarious.

Some grassroots Labour party members want Jeremy Corbyn back as leader.

Corbyn, while not renowned for oratory, is at the same time a campaigner who can woo large crowds. He is also a thoroughly decent person, a quality in very short supply on nearly all fronts of UK parliamentary politics.

Nonetheless, the various accounts of Corbyn’s leadership indicate that the bureaucratic daily grind of managing a contemporary political party on a 24/7 media cycle was not really his forte. Moreover, he’s not likely to want the job back, given the constant internal sabotage he experienced from supporters of Blair’s regime, who are still installed at Labour’s party HQ, and who for now are Starmerites.

Those on the party’s left who could do the job of being the next Labour leader include Jon Trickett, a former shadow minister, widely regarded as the sharpest mind in parliament, though some ask if he’d want the job at 70.

Other front runners are the Corbyn supporters Richard Burgon (a 40-year -old lawyer and relentlessly energetic campaigner with grassroots support, he’s my future pick), and the more experienced former miners’ union leader Ian Lavery.

The candidate favoured by the party’s right is likely to be the mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham.

All this is in the realm of speculation, and as a famous French Marxist philosopher once reminded us: “the future lasts a long time”.

The Tory triumph in these elections was achieved in the context of a badly managed pandemic (albeit with a vaccine “bounce” for BoJo); an economic slump caused by Brexit; a long-term gig economy promoted by both the Tories and New Labour since Thatcher; a critical housing crisis; and Potemkin-like attempts to address climate change.

As Americans would say about this somewhat inexplicable situation: “Go figure!”

Labour’s decline cannot however be attributed entirely to its recent internecine brawling and skirmishing. The current crisis facing it has been decades in the making, and mirrors the travails of social-democratic parties across Europe. Telling this story can be reserved for another time.

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.