Tories Plunge in UK Mid-Term Elections, But Labour has a Mountain to Climb

Photograph Source: Matt Brown – CC BY 2.0

Last week elections were held 4,300 councillors in 146 English local authorities. In Scotland all 32 councils and in Wales all 22 councils also held elections. In the north of Ireland there were elections for all 90 seats in the devolved Northern Irish Assembly. in addition, 7 mayoralties were at stake. The elections came at the perceived mid-way point of the UK government’s term, and had crucial implications for all the political parties involved. 

In a nutshell, the election results showed the following:

+ The crisis-ridden Tories, beset by scandal, imploded, losing 490 seats in the process;

+ Labour under Keir Starmer, bereft of vision or ideas, made gains (more than 250 seats) but failed in the end to capitalize on the Tory debacle. It did extremely well in London, but much less so elsewhere. Starmer only seems able to define himself in opposition to Labour’s leftwingers, and not much else.

+ The Lib Dems (gaining 188 seats) and Greens (gaining 82 seats) made significant headway, especially given that Labour is now a centre-right party, leaving the centre and centre-left as fertile ground for them. However, both these minority parties face major limitations— most significantly, the UK’s antiquated first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting system, which is geared to assign electoral spoils to the 2 major parties (as in the US).

+ History was made in the north of Ireland when Sinn Féin, campaigning for a united Ireland, emerged against the grain of Northern Irish history as the largest party (more about this later).

+ In Scotland, the Scottish National Party (SNP) made further gains, the Tories got trounced, and Labour emerged as the main opposition to the nationalists. After 15 years in power, the SNP increased its seat tally by 22, while Labour gaining 20, the Lib Dems 20 and the Greens 16. The Conservatives dropped 63.

+ In Wales, Labour (the ruling party) and the nationalist party Plaid Cymru both made gains at the expense of the Tories. Welsh Labour is social democrat, and has not joined Starmer in his anti-Corbynism.

The results from Scotland and Northern Ireland are likely to raise weighty constitutional questions about the future of the UK. The SNP may be emboldened to push for another referendum on Scottish independence in a few years (especially after the 2024 general election result), and Sinn Féin has given itself a 5-year timeframe to introduce a referendum on Irish reunification.

Sinn Féin topped the first-preference vote with 29%, enabling its deputy leader, Michelle O’Neill, to become the north of Ireland’s first minister, the first nationalist to hold this position in a historic and severe blow to Protestant-oriented Unionism.

The Democratic Unionist party, the largest of the Unionist parties (it won 25 seats to Sinn Féin’s 27), wants an urgent meeting with BoJo Johnson to warn him it will delay power-sharing at Stormont until Christmas if the Northern Ireland protocol is not modified.

Some Tory candidates took to calling themselves “Local Conservatives”, urging voters not to punish them for “mistakes made in Westminster”, in order to distance themselves from the prime minister Boris “BoJo” Johnson. The ruse did not work– the Tories got hammered.

Prof John Curtice, the psephologist who led the analysis of the election results for the BBC said of the outcome:

The trouble is, outside of London, Labour share of the vote was actually down slightly.

In terms of seats won and lost, while it’s made net gains in London, it’s actually made a slight net loss outside of London. So outside of London it’s a rather different story. And of course Labour can’t win Westminster parliament by simply winning Westminster council.

When the presenter, Nick Robinson, put it to him that an accurate summary of the outcome would be “Bad for the Tories, not good enough for Labour”, Curtice replied: “I think that’s absolutely right.”

The central challenge for BoJo was holding together his 2019 coalition of red wall voters (typically Brexit-voting, white, working-class, fed-up Labour supporters aged over 45), and their blue wall counterparts (traditional lifelong Tories in the leafy shires around London and in the south of England). This coalition broke-down in these elections.

The red wall held reasonably well for the Tories, but blue wall voters defected in large numbers to the Lib Dems. The challenge for the Tories in the 2024 general election will be winning back the blue wall while not reneging on the expansive promises BoJo made to win over the red wall in 2019.

Given that the UK is likely to be in the economic doldrums for the next 2-3 years, with a recession looming in 2023, holding together this coalition between the 2 walls will put a strain on the public purse.

As it is, the current high rate of inflation (expected to reach 10% in the final quarter of this year, stoking a cost-of-living crisis associated primarily with spiralling energy bills (while energy companies are making bumper profits), and with the economic costs of Brexit starting to kick in, these issues will have to be addressed even before BoJo can persuade his MPs to fund his red wall “levelling-up” pledges.

In order to ward-off threats to his leadership during his Partygate travails, BoJo has already made significant concessions to the “small state” and “liberty loving”, low-tax wing of his party (primarily by lifting all Covid restrictions, prematurely and against the advice of medical experts), and this querulous faction will put lower taxes much higher on their electoral agenda than increased spending on socially-deprived parts of the UK.

BoJo is thus having to ride the proverbial two horses in mid-stream.

It now seems likely that some Tories will use their poor election result to launch a fresh leadership challenge against BoJo.

BoJo’s fate will probably be sealed by 2 upcoming parliamentary by-elections in seats held by Tory MPs who resigned–one after being found guilty of sexually abusing minors, the other after being caught watching porn on his phone in the chamber of the House of Commons.

Meanwhile the Labour leader Keir Starmer is not without his own Covid lockdown problems.

As the election campaign was ending, Durham Police announced they were launching an investigation into whether Starmer broke lockdown rules in the so-called Beergate brouhaha following “significant new information”.

Starmer has been feeling the heat since footage emerged recently in the mass media of him drinking a beer indoors with colleagues in April 2021 in Durham, while campaigning in a nearby by-election.

At the time of the gathering, non-essential retail and outdoor venues including pub gardens were open, but some social distancing rules, including a ban on indoor mixing between households, were still in effect.

Durham police had said in their initial assessment that no offence was committed by Starmer.

The original footage was filmed on 30 April 2021 by a student at a Durham university, who passed it on to the student newspaper.

The story lay dormant until BoJo and the chancellor/finance minister, Rishi Sunak, were fined last month for breaching lockdown rules in the prime minister’s official residence.

BoJo’s supporters in parliament and the pro-Tory tabloid rags then went to town with the Beergate story, in a desperate attempt to establish an “equivalence” between Starmer’s one-off indoor drinking episode and BoJo’s repeated partying at his official residence.

This however put pressure on the Durham police to reopen their investigation into Starmer.

When BoJo had been charged, and before he was fined, Starmer called on him to resign. Starmer, in order to protect his “integrity”, would probably have to resign if charged with a similar offence by the Durham police. If he did, it is hard to see how BoJo could not follow suit.

Starmer has said he is the victim of a “smear” campaign. What has certainly come to light is the lack of consistency in the application of the lockdown regulations by different police forces.

However, the concurrent departure of Starmer and BoJo would in fact be the perfect scenario for those wanting UK politics to raise its collective head somewhat above current bog levels.

At one stroke, the worst UK prime minister in modern times would leave office, as would the flat-out anti-socialist careerist purporting to lead a socialist party, and who inveigled his way into its leadership under a false prospectus.

A possible perfect storm for a couple of rank pro-Establishment opportunists?

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