The Tory Party In Tatters After English Local Elections

Photograph Source: © UK Parliament / Maria Unger – CC BY 3.0

Local council elections, along with several regional mayoral and one parliamentary by-election were held in England (but not the rest of the UK) on May 2. The results were potentially significant insofar as a very poor showing by the Conservatives could have had an immediate impact on Rishi Sunak’s fate as prime minister.

The parliamentary by-election for Blackpool South was for a Red Wall seat won by the Tories in 2019. It was taken back by Labour this time with huge 26% swing from the Tories to Labour (who had held the seat from 1997 to 2019). Even more alarming for the Tories was their candidate only beating the far-right UK Reform party by a mere 117 votes—under Rishi Sunak the Tories have been tacking further right by blatantly stealing UK Reform’s political clothes, so the result does not bode well for this sharp-turn-right strategy. Rightwing voters went for the real thing rather than falling for a piece of ersatz opportunism. The British electoral system, which is first-past-the post as in the US, simply has no room for 2 far-right parties, or indeed any 2 parties with identical campaign pitches.

The mayoralty races afforded the Conservatives scant consolation, as 10 out of the 11 elections for regional mayors were won by Labour.

In London, Sadiq Khan, the only Muslim mayor of a global metropolis, won a record third-term with an increased majority despite a viciously racist and Islamophobic campaign– bruiting about the term “Londonistan” and similar tabloid expressions—mounted by the Tories and UK Reform in a flailing attempt to somehow lure Londoners to the right of the centre-left Khan.

The Tory Ben Houchen won re-election to a third term as mayor of Tees Valley with a greatly reduced majority. Houchen campaigned as an independent rather than a Tory: his campaign literature made no mention of the Conservatives or Rishi Sunak. Nevertheless Sunak flew to Tees Valley by helicopter—his preferred mode of travel—to abase himself by standing next to Houchen. Interestingly, neither Houchen nor Sunak wore the emblematic Tory blue rosette at this photo op. A picture’s worth a thousand words ….

The West Midlands mayoral contest, where the Tories expected to win a third term for the incumbent Andy Street, who campaigned as “Brand Andy” rather than the heavily-freighted “Brand Tory” and who presented himself as a businessman/former CEO rather than a politician, turned out to be a disappointment for the ever-diminishing number of hopeful Tories at party     HQ.

Like Ben Houchen, the popular Street sought to distance himself from the Conservative party, but to no avail. The West Midlands has a large Muslim population, and Labour expected to lose votes as a result of Keir Starmer’s blind support of Israel in its pulverizing of Gaza. Even so, the virtually unknown Labour candidate squeaked through, despite being asked “who are you?” at the hustings.

Sunak’s constituency, Richmond, is in the York and Nort Yorkshire mayoralty, and even that went to Labour.

At the same time, Labour’s position over Gaza cost it support. Labour failed to regain control of Oxford after a string of well-publicized defections over its policies on the Middle East; it lost control of Oldham council in Greater Manchester to independents (in Oldham more than a tenth of the electorate are Muslim and Labour’s vote share fell by 8%); it also lost council seats to independents in Blackburn with Darwen and Bradford; and the Workers’ party gained from it in Rochdale.

Two primary questions are posed by these election results in England. A caveat has to be entered at this point, since local elections have, historically, not been a good predictor for general elections. Local issues can often provide variables that don’t manifest themselves in national elections.

Firstly, given the dismal Tory figures, what will the consistently faltering Conservative party, which has been going backwards electorally in the last 12 months, decide to do with the hapless Rishi Sunak?

Secondly, while Labour did impressively well overall, the Liberal Democrats and Greens also exceeded expectations, which poses the question whether they can eat into Labour’s vote in the coming general election. This time, the Liberal Democrats won more seats than the Conservatives, something that has not happened in nearly 30 years– the Lib Dems gained 768 seats, Labour 545 and the Greens 480, while the Tories lost 1,783.

It has to be acknowledged that Keir Starmer, with his wooden delivery, is a lacklustre public campaigner. He pales on the election trail in comparison to a couple of Labour mayors (Sadiq Khan and the mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham), as well as the Labour Deputy Leader Angela Rayner, who, unlike the timorous Starmer, are refreshingly candid in stating their convictions and policy positions.

Sunak appears safe for now. The Tories have had 5 prime ministers since coming to power in 2010. Two of the most recent (Liz Truss and Sunak) have not faced voters—Truss was elected by the Tory party membership, which the brown-skinned Sunak avoided when Tory MPs decided to spare him the ordeal of facing the racist Tory membership and confined his election to the MPs themselves. Dumping Sunak for a 6th prime minister (and the 3rd one not to face voters in a general election) a few months before a general election is not likely to impress jaded voters who have given up on the Tory government.

During 14 years in government, the Tories have eroded the welfare safety net, undermined the quality of public services through underfunding and systemic indifference, and caused a massive economic drag by implementing a hard Brexit. Child poverty rates have increased, the NHS is hamstrung by record waiting lists and severe understaffing (largely the result of Brexit which induced many NHS staff to return to their EU countries, as well as being forced to “balance the books”). Staff shortages also bedevil social care.

So far it looks pretty certain the Tories will be trounced in the general election, though Labour still can’t be certain it will secure a landslide win the way Tony Blair’s New Labour did in 1997.

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