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3 May 2024updated 07 May 2024 11:45am

The Tories need to avoid false comfort

Labour’s victories in Yorkshire and the East Midlands are far more telling than Ben Houchen and Andy Street’s survival.

By Rachel Cunliffe

“Loss aversion” is a well-documented psychological phenomenon: as humans we have a cognitive bias that makes the pain of losing something we already have feel more powerful than the pleasure of gaining or the disappointment of not gaining something we didn’t.

That may partly explain why the Conservatives, though thoroughly bruised by the council results we’ve received so far for the local elections, are taking a glass half-full attitude. Yes, they are down 250 councillors and an MP (a loss the Tories are attempting to write off as a personnel issue, given the circumstances in which Scott Benton departed parliament). But Ben Houchen defied the odds to win a historic third term as Tees Valley mayor with 53.6 per cent of the vote. Isn’t that a sign that things aren’t quite as apocalyptic as they seemed earlier in the week?

That optimism may be bolstered by tomorrow’s results. In a very tight contest, Labour sources are briefing that Tory incumbent Andy Street has held onto the West Midlands mayoralty. In London, meanwhile, Sadiq Khan is expected to win, but by a much tighter margin than the polls across the capital would suggest (Labour is blaming new voter ID rules, the Tories are putting this down to Khan’s unpopularity), offering a glimmer of hope to Conservatives insisting their party is still competitive.

If tomorrow does play out that way, expect to hear the Tories confidently briefing that holding on in two big mayoral contests and snapping at Labour’s heels in London challenge the narrative that all is lost.

That’s the loss aversion bias talking. Because while the Tories have avoided losing their most high-profile mayor and might avoid losing Street too, they have failed to gain the two that really matter. The big story of the day is Labour’s mayoral wins in the East Midlands and York and North Yorkshire.

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Why? Because these new mayoralties are in areas that should not even have been competitive.

Let’s start with David Skaith’s victory in York and North Yorkshire – or “Rishi Sunak’s backyard”, as Labour are gleefully calling it. Because yes, that’s where the Prime Minister’s own consistency of Richmond is located.

As the New Statesman’s senior data journalist Ben Walker explains: “If you’re looking for the jaw-dropping result of the 2024 local election season, this should be it. Labour has never come close to topping the poll in North Yorkshire – ever. This is not normal.” While the area does include the city of York (full of students and young professionals who are more likely to vote Labour), Skaith’s win here shows a collapse in Conservative support across “Tory Yorkshire” places such as Harrogate. It’s a continuation of the trend first seen when Labour won Selby and Ainsty in July 2023, overturning a majority of over 20,000 with a 23.7-point swing.

There was no incumbent here so this doesn’t on paper look like a Tory loss, but it should have the Conservatives very worried. The race wasn’t even close, with Skaith a comfortable eight points ahead of his Tory rival. This will no doubt renew chatter about the potential for Rishi Sunak to lose his seat (as suggested by a Survation poll in March that forecast the Tories could win under 100 MPs). Hyperbolic? Perhaps, but no longer looking like an outlandish scenario.

The East Midlands mayoralty presents a similarly grim picture. Here, Labour’s Claire Ward won by a substantial 50,000 majority, with 40.3 per cent of the vote and a lead of 11.5 points.

Again, there was no incumbent, but this is a race the Conservative Party of 2019 should have won easily. The Tory candidate, Ben Bradley, is both MP for Mansfield and leader of Nottinghamshire county council. A fellow Conservative MP described him to me as “one of the best campaigners we have”. They also pointed out that the Tories  had won the overwhelming majority of constituencies in the area in 2019, and said a Labour win here would be “a massive red flag”.

It’s interesting to take a look at Reform UK’s performance in this race. They came fourth behind the Greens with 10 per cent and 49,000 votes, almost as much as Labour’s majority. It is overly simplistic to assume that those voters would all have backed the Conservatives if Reform were not an option, and the strong performance from the Greens is also worth paying attention to. But nonetheless, for Tories concerned that the party Nigel Farage and Richard Tice might split their vote and deny them victories in key marginals, this is not a reassuring result.

Of course, if Andy Street is successful in holding the neighbouring West Midlands mayoralty tomorrow, that narrative will be swept under the carpet. Street, after all, has a much higher profile than Bradley (who is just a backbench MP). He will be held up with Ben Houchen as evidence that Tory support is not collapsing, especially if Khan only narrowly holds on in London. Expect to hear a lot of noise about all that.

But in terms of trends, Street and Houchen are the outliers. Their strong personal brands and popularity in their local areas offer little comfort to Tory MPs worrying about their own seats. For them, Bradley’s performance is a far more useful barometer. We get a clearer indication of the feelings of the electorate – and how they might vote in a general election – from the new mayoralties the Tories failed to win than the existing ones they managed not to lose.

[See also: Mapped: The 2024 local election results]

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