Another brick out of the wall: What the May elections suggest about the state of English politics

by Benjamin Smith

 

On 6 May elections were held across the UK for, among other things, local councillors, mayors, and the MP for Hartlepool. On the morning of 7 May it was confirmed that the Conservatives, with candidate Jill Mortimer, have achieved a “historic result” (Mortimer’s words) by winning this Hartlepool by-election for the first time in 47 years. An analysis of this will indicate what might occur in the next general election and the changes Labour need to make.

 

Predictably seismic

The Hartlepool result is significant. Not only does it produce one more Conservative seat in the House of Commons, it fosters an underlying mood of Conservative dominance and incites criticism of Sir Keir Starmer from within the Labour party. This loss was then compounded when Labour failed to come close in the mayoral contests in Teesside and the West Midlands. The Financial Times’ Seb Payne suggested that Labour needed at least Hartlepool and the West Midlands to show potential for a return to power.

The magnitude of the Conservative victory (15,529 votes to Labour’s 8,589) is surprising given the varied predictions from the polls in the preceding weeks. However, the victory in itself merely represents another ‘brick’ removed from the ‘red wall’ (the band of traditionally Labour seats in the north of England). This is a process that began in 2017 and was expediated in the 2019 general election.

 

What does this mean?

The last few weeks has seen almost nothing but allegations of cronyism, lying, and the general belittling of major political issues from the heart of government. One could be forgiven for thinking that Labour would prosper in these elections and potentially halt the loss of the ‘red wall’. In reality, the opposite occurred. The results will have been caused by an array of imbricate factors, but they raise a couple of points about the future of UK politics. 

First, the Conservatives are liked and, possibly, needed. Johnson’s charisma, whether adored or found to be repulsive, is undeniable and clearly returns electoral results. He will also have profited from a successful vaccine rollout, investments in policing, a furlough scheme that was a lifeline for small businesses during the pandemic, and the fortuitous opportunity to show ‘naval might’ in the Channel the day before the elections. These outweigh, or encourage people to forgive/forget, the recent questions raised about the PMs morality. This dynamic is unlikely to change, meaning that any future scandal may not have significant negative repercussions for the Conservatives. It is also possible that decades of austerity and the simultaneous house-price inflation and wage stagnation leaves people feeling that there is insufficient money to go around and that wealth and assets must be clung to. Voting for the traditionally more redistributive left would make the electorate uneasy under these circumstances.

Second, Labour need to do better if they are to constitute a challenge in the next general election. Without successful campaigning strategies they have failed to engage the working classes and win back those in the ‘red wall’ who voted for the Brexit party in 2019 and ‘Leave’ in 2016.

 

Labour’s woes

Labour is currently fighting a perception that it has been captured by either far-left ‘Corbynite’ extremists or a supercilious urban ‘intelligentsia’. It also consistently proclaims that no decent person could be a ‘Tory’. These features alienate many in the ‘red wall’ and such a claim to the moral high ground is unattractive.

Some commentators have encouraged a move to the political right. It would seem logical that a more centrist position could attract some fringe Conservative voters back into the Labour fold. However, historically, these moves have been successful only at times of economic growth and prosperity, for example New Labour’s model in the 90s and 2000s. At present, while the country is still dealing with the effects of the financial crisis and rebuilding after Covid, a more moderate redistributive policy is unlikely to work or be inviting. Furthermore, the issue appears more related to their rhetoric.

A better solution might be a ‘progressive alliance’ – a coordination of the centre and leftist parties to produce an adequate challenge. Labour would have to yield to other parties in certain constituencies (due to the first-past-the-post system), reconcile their own factions, and concede a more patriotic rhetoric, but these strategy changes may be what are required. The Danish model, in which a main centre-left party governs with support from progressive groups, has shown this to work. 

In response to Labour’s drubbing, leader Keir Starmer reshuffled key positions, removing Corbynista Angela Rayner’s role as campaign manager in return for other powers. He meanwhile has appointed Rachel Reeves, a long-standing centrist figure in the party and economist, to the role of Shadow Chancellor.

 

A (still) Conservative Britain

With the fall out over Brexit, COVID-19, and the multiple allegations of sleaze towards the UK government, one would expect opposition parties to have had a high point of success in these mid-term elections. Yet, the old adage that incumbent governments gain strength through crises seems to have held true. If this continues, Labour and the progressive politics it espouses could become a redundant feature of British politics for the long-term. The local focus of many of the elections on 6 May belie their significance. They show that, although there are many options for Labour to attract voters, the political scene appears to belong to the Conservatives in the near future.

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