The Conservatives once appeared destined for a new era of hegemony. Their embrace of the Brexit project led to victories in dozens of seats in Labour’s “Red Wall” heartlands in 2019, and their largest parliamentary majority since 1987. But the opportunity was carelessly squandered. Two calamitous prime ministers, the worst fall in living standards since records began and the continuing decay of the public realm have transformed voter attitudes.
The local elections in England on 4 May provided the strongest evidence yet of the emergence of a new anti-Conservative coalition. (This is already strong in Scotland and Wales.) Having briefed that they would lose 1,000 seats – a deliberate worst-case scenario – the Tories lost 1,063. Since they started from a low base – these elections were last fought at the nadir of Theresa May’s premiership – this was a dismal outcome.
The fundamental problem facing the Tories is that they have alienated so many different groups for different reasons: Remainers, Leavers, homeowners, renters, public sector workers, One Nation Tories, social liberals and those who simply want a quiet life. As a consequence, they lost votes in all directions – to Labour (up 537 seats), the Liberal Democrats (up 407) and the Greens (up 241) – and control of 49 councils.
The Tories’ 2019 electoral coalition is crumbling: Red Wall voters are returning to Labour just as “Blue Wall” voters in the traditional Conservative English south defect. In Hertfordshire, where the Tories controlled seven out of ten district councils in 2015, they now hold just one.
As the former Conservative cabinet minister David Gauke has written, the party has repelled those who should be its natural supporters: “Aspirational and relatively economically secure, they voted Conservative in the expectation of stability and caution, of sound public finances and respect for institutions, of competence and moderation. Instead, they have had the chaos of Brexit, the buffoonery of Boris Johnson and the recklessness of Liz Truss.”
[See also: What could go wrong for Keir Starmer?]
The Tory right, which has coalesced around the Conservative Democratic Organisation and the new National Conservatives grouping, has wasted little time in blaming Rishi Sunak for the party’s defeat. There is always someone else to blame. But this is largely delusional: opinion polls show Mr Sunak is more popular than his party. Traditional calls by back-bench MPs for tax cuts and deregulation merely show that they do not grasp the scale of their predicament – or the transformation in the global order.
For Labour, now the largest party in local government for the first time since 2002, the election results offered cause for hope. Keir Starmer can credibly claim that he is likely to become prime minister next year.
What Labour cannot yet argue with confidence is that it will win a parliamentary majority. The electorate’s disdain for the Tories is far greater than its enthusiasm for Labour. The party finished nine points ahead of the Tories, and the BBC estimated its national vote share to be 35 per cent, which is no higher than last year or its share in 2018 under Jeremy Corbyn. Since governing parties often regain support in advance of a general election – as in 1992, 2010 and 2015 – Labour ought to be anxious.
Mr Starmer has far less to fear from a hung parliament than the Conservatives, however. They have no plausible partners, not even the Democratic Unionist Party, following its revolt against Mr Sunak’s Brexit deal.
Labour, by contrast, could turn to the Liberal Democrats, who have been reinvigorated as an anti-Tory protest party. A deal between the two could yet open the way for the replacement of the UK’s anachronistic first-past-the-post voting system – a long overdue reform but one Labour regrettably does not support. The Scottish National Party, which is troubled but still strong, would then be forced to choose whether to support a Labour-led administration or the Tories.
After years of drift and decline under the Conservatives, Britain needs a comprehensive programme of political, economic and social renewal. For Labour, which suffered its worst election defeat since 1935 only four years ago, this is a remarkable opportunity. Yet if Keir Starmer is to be entrusted with power he and his party must do far more to explain how they would use it.
This article appears in the 10 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, What could go wrong?