Local elections are often seen as a mini referendum on the incumbent national government. This one was billed as a potentially decisive blow to Boris Johnson’s premiership. And yet, at the time of writing, it seems inconceivable that the results will trigger a leadership contest. Expectation management has been at full throttle (from both sides) in the run up to 5 May, with Conservative sources even suggesting anything less than 800 seats lost would be a good night.
Labour dominating in the capital
The obvious thing to say is that Labour have done very well in London. Westminster, which has never been Labour; Wandsworth, a Tory beacon of low council taxes; and Barnet, with a significant Jewish population, all now have Labour run councils. The loss of Wandsworth, famously known as Thatcher’s favourite council, will be painful for the Conservatives. But Keir Starmer winning over the Jewish population is a particular feat and emblematic of how Labour are now more politically astute under new leadership. It will also be a cause for concern in Tory HQ that they are losing badly across the capital, in a place where the prime minister used to be mayor as recently as 2016. London Tory MPs, from Hendon to Chingford and Wood Green, will be looking on nervously ahead of 2024.
A different story in the red wall
Outside of London, the picture is slightly different. Labour have gone backwards on their 2018 local elections showing in the ‘red wall’ (under former leader Jeremy Corbyn). But the Conservatives aren’t making the progress they would have liked either after the totemic 2019 general election, where many constituencies voted blue for the first time. With less than two years until the next general election, focus on the ‘red wall’ looks set to intensify (with some of the smallest majorities in the country across the north of England. Questions will be raised about whether the mission to ‘level up’ is either achievable or demonstrable.
Labour does not have to win a majority for Keir Starmer to be prime minister, and these local elections are consistent with the Conservatives losing their majority in parliament.
Lib Dem threaten the Tories in the south
For the Liberal Democrats, wounded in recent years by being the junior coalition partner to the Conservatives, want to distance themselves from talk of election pacts or coalitions. Results show they are on the comeback and dangerous to ‘blue wall’ MPs from Esher to Oxfordshire, and their traditional strongholds in the south west. Middle-class Conservative voters in 2019 look a particularly difficult constituency for the prime minister to win back after Partygate. Culture war politics and high taxes will doubtless have had an effect. How this election plays out for the environment on a national level is yet to be seen, but the Greens had a decent local showing and low traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs) didn’t become the political stick many thought.
The question for strategists now, is what bucket of policies can get them over the line in 2024? In Financial Times journalist Sebastian Payne’s book Broken Heartlands: a journey through Labour’s lost England, Tory strategist Isaac Levido is quoted as saying “voters vote on the future not the past”. As the party’s race towards manifesto writing, it is all to play for.