A Conservative Wipe-Out in the 2023 England Local Elections

Photograph Source: bixentro – CC BY 2.0

Local government elections were held in England were held on Thursday 4th May and will not conclude until Tuesday 9th May, when Redcar & Cleveland, in North Yorkshire, will declare their 2 awaited results.

However, after the results for over 8000 seats have come in, the now centre-right (under the Blairite Keir Starmer) Labour has gained 635 seats, while the Tories lost 960 (predicted to lose 1000 seats, they also lost control of 48 councils in the process), while the centrist Lib Dems gained 405 seats. The Greens (positioning themselves between the centre and centre-left as dictated by their heavy focus on local issues) gained 241 seats.

Labour is now the largest party in local government, surpassing the Tories for the first time since 2002.

The Tories lost ground to Labour in traditional “red wall” seats (former Labour strongholds in the North and Midlands which had switched to the pro-Brexit Tories), and to the Lib Dems in the “blue wall” in the Tory shires of the South. Three-quarters of those who voted rejected the Tories.

The Lib Dems did well in the 2022 local elections by attracting moderate Tory voters who were repelled by “BoJo” Johnson’s corrupt and chaotic administration.

This year the Lib Dems further weakened the “blue wall” and showed they can also make inroads into Tory territory against Rishi Sunak. They made impressive gains in areas represented by major Tory politicians.

These include Surrey Heath, where Michael Gove, a spearhead of the Tory Brexit campaign, is the MP; Stratford-on-Avon, which is represented by the disgraced (because of his tax-dodging ways) former chancellor of the exchequer/finance minister Nadhim Zahawi; and Windsor and Maidenhead, the political homeland of the ex-premier Theresa May.

The Tories now know that the Lib Dems can wrest control of local councils in what used to be their heartlands for decades.

The binding ideological cement provided by the Tory mantra of “getting Brexit done”, and any benefit of the doubt ensuing from the Covid pandemic, no longer work. Labour made gains in Brexit-voting areas of the country where it suffered many losses in 2019. Figures published on Sunday by the Observer show that in the most heavily leave-supporting areas, Labour is 7 points ahead of where it was 2 years ago.

The drawbacks to Brexit become more tangible by the day (even to otiose rightwing-nationalist voters), and the increasingly public evidence, also by the day, of Tory corruption and incompetence in the handling of the pandemic can no longer be countermanded, even by the pro-Tory media.

As a result, the Tories appear rudderless ideologically, while Labour and the Lib Dems are increasingly pinning-down a narrative about a Britain wrecked after 13 years of Tory (mis)rule, where nothing works except for the plutocracy, and public services, especially the NHS, have been ground underfoot financially.

Some commentators say these developments are an encouraging sign for Labour. The more gains made by the Lib Dems at the expense of Tory MPs at the next general election, the more likely it is that Keir Starmer’s Labour will be the largest party in the Commons.

Other commentators demur, saying the strong showing by the Lib Dems and the Greens are a sign that voters are not entirely convinced by Labour, and especially by the shifty and evasive Starmer (whose latest U-turn is reneging on his pledge to abolish tuition fees for colleges and universities), who has not so far been able to communicate his policies clearly and coherently to the public.

Despite 13 years of Tory misrule, Brits still struggle to understand how their country would look different under a Labour government. Starmer does little apart from issuing pledges with no accompanying possible roadmaps for implementing them. For example, it is obvious to most onlookers that taxes on the rich will have to be increased if socio-economic inequality is to be reduced. Beyond announcing a plan for British Recovery Bonds to encourage savings that will be invested in local communities, jobs and businesses, Starmer has not said anything significant about the tax reform that will be needed.

According to finder.com:

# In 2023, almost a quarter (23%) of Brits have no savings at all, rising from 20% in 2022.

# 50% of Brits have £1000 or less in savings.

# Around 27 million Brits (51%) would not be able to live off their savings for more than one month.

# A third (32%) of gen X have no savings at all, more than any other generation.

# Gen Z had the biggest increase in the number of people with no savings, going from 12% in 2022 to 22% in 2023.

# Women only have £11,698 in savings on average, compared to £23,951 for men.

The people with the money to invest in Starmer’s British Recovery Bonds —the wealthy—are allowed by tax loopholes to shelter their wealth in offshore tax havens.

There are important questions about how a Labour government responds to the increased number of people who will never own their dwelling-place—Starmer has accused the Tories of destroying the notion of a “property-owning democracy”, oblivious of the fact that it was Margaret Thatcher’s pursuit of a “property-owning democracy” that led to the catastrophic depletion of the UK’s social-housing stock. How will Starmer avoid Thatcher’s folly?

What will Labour do about the deluge of homeless people? What are the implications of an increasingly impoverished Britain for the next generation and its retirement? What would it do about the growing number of older people who lack resources to deal with the ever-increasing burdens of daily life? What about the “gig economy” of low-paid jobs with poor prospects of advancement that many young people confront now confront as an unavoidable fate?

The opposition parties are now posing the media-focused question: is anything better today than it was in 2010 (the year the Tories came into power)?

One of the obvious answers to this question lies in the dismal-for-Brits projection that in 2024 the average UK household will enjoy a lower standard of living than the average household in former Eastern bloc Slovenia; and that in 2030, these Brits will have fallen behind former Eastern-bloc Poland.

So: forget about trying to make similar comparisons with Canadians and Aussies, let alone the Germans and French (these near and far-away countries being “our western neighbours”). And this coming from a country where a benighted chunk of the Brexit-voting population wallows in nostalgia for the days of Empire.

Alas: “It’s no longer Britannia ruling the waves, mate, it’s us now being topped by Slovenia”.

Bereft of new ideas, the Tory leader, Rishi Sunak, is being and pulled in different directions by his MPs.

Not unexpectedly, one Tory wing wants supercharged Thatcherite policies (more tax cuts, “smaller” government), while the other favours a more traditional paternalistic Tory “one nation” approach, prioritizing an agenda dealing in whichever nebulous way with the cost-of-living crisis and socio-economic inequality.

Faced with this intractable issue, which has confronted Tories since the Thatcherite ascendency—witness her confrontation with her “one nation” Tory predecessor as prime minister, Edward Heath, and his remaining allies in her first cabinet (she drove them out eventually)– Sunak took evasive action by turning to the dog-whistle culture wars.

A campaign was launched against asylum-seekers crossing the Channel in small boats. This was magnified into a national crisis by the Tories, as Sunak stood behind podiums bearing a “Stop the boats” sticker. Tory canvassers on doorsteps however reported that there was no such general alarm about the boats on the part of the electorate. Far more concerning to voters was the state of the NHS and the cost-of-living crisis, for which they blamed the Tories and no one else.

Tory HQ switched its focus to “local issues” such as the potholed state of British roads. Sunak held a meaningless photo-op with him and a group of flunkeys stooping to peer into a pothole. This did not work of course—some Tory local councillors who lost their seats pointed out that voters realized the potholes were the result of severe long-term cuts to local government finances imposed by their party.

Two caveats are appropriate at this point. Firstly, the general election is approximately 20 months away, and it is a fact that results at local elections are a poor predictor of outcomes at the UK general election. Secondly, that outcome is now out of Tory hands. Everything will hinge on the course of the economy, the change in the inflation-rate, prices at the supermarkets, the number of food banks, and so forth.

As a well-known French Marxist philosopher used to say: “the future lasts a long time”.

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