5 May 2023

A bad night for the Tories, but Starmer should keep the bubbly on ice


Is this the end of the ‘Rishi revival’? The Prime Minister has had a good couple of months. Yes, inflation may be almost as stubborn as the nurses. But the slow movement of the opinion polls from “apocalyptic” to merely “quite dire”, in line with delivering the Windsor Framework and an imploding SNP, has given Sunak a little momentum.  

But Keir Starmer will be hoping that today’s local election results put paid to any burgeoning hopes the Prime Minister has of more than a brief residency in Number 10. Already, Labour have picked up councils like Stoke, Plymouth, and Medway – all overlapping with crucial swing seats for next year’s general election, and Starmer is claiming he is all set for a majority.

The Tories also find themselves also squeezed by the Yellow Peril: Liberal Democrat gains across the south-east. The party has taken Windsor and Maidenhead – just in time for the Coronation – and robbed the Conservatives of their majority in Hertsmere. Has CCHQ’s pitch-rolling suggestion that they could lose 1,000 seats become a rather unfortunate prediction? 

Not quite. It is widely accepted amongst observers that what matters for analysing these results is not the number of councillors gained or lost, but the predictions of national vote share that the BBC, Sky, and The Sunday Times will be releasing today and at the weekend. This is a more reliable predictor for showing how the parties would be doing at a general election. 

Even this data is complicated by some important caveats: not everywhere in England is having elections, a far greater number of independents are elected than at general elections, and the Lib Dems and Greens tend to overperform, courtesy of their eco-friendly (and electorally efficient) passion for NIMBYism. We also haven’t had elections in Scotland, Wales, or Northern Ireland.

None of which stops the amateur psephologists from emerging in force. Those Tory MPs who have been calling for tax cuts both before and after the implosion of Trussonomics are still doing so today. Those who haven’t yet emerged blinking from the cult of Boris Johnson are also claiming this is Sunak’s fault for knifing their grand master, and what swing voters really want is another leadership election. 

Such idle speculation would have happened whatever today’s results were. But contrary to Labour’s smugness last night, the emerging story is that Starmer hasn’t quite down as well as he hoped – and that Sunak’s hopes of a triumph next year as not as improbable as they perhaps should be. I’ll go further: from what we know so far, Starmer will not win a majority next year. 

When Sunak became Prime Minister, the Tories were an average of around 30 points behind in the polls. He has halved that to 15 points. Hardly amazing stuff – until one remembers that Labour needs a swing of at least 12 points to win a majority. That’s bigger than the one Tony Blair achieved in 1997. To put it another way, Labour must gain 124 seats to get a majority of one.

Hence why pollster John Curtice has warned Starmer and co not to break out the bubbly quite yet. When these elections were last fought in 2019, amidst Brexit psychodrama and the Jeremy Corbyn nightmare, Labour only managed 24% of the vote – a tie with the Tories. What recovery we’ve seen today is therefore at least partly a reversion to the mean after the previous shellacking. 

That said, Curtice has suggested that today’s results are ‘not the kind of performance Blair was achieving’ before his 1997 landslide. In fact, Labour’s lead so far is under that suggested by the opinion polls – closer to 8% than 18%. Even with 20 or so seats at the expense of the SNP dumpster fire, this is hung parliament territory, not a majority. 

Of course, a hung parliament still likely sees Starmer in Number 10. Having alienated the DUP, the Conservatives have no probable partners for a minority government or coalition. But still: at the heights of the Truss meltdown, it looked like the Conservatives would ape their Canadian brethren and be entirely wiped out. Compared to that, a hung parliament would be a blessed relief for CCHQ. 

It won’t be a blessed relief the hundreds of hard-working Tory councillors who are seeing themselves voted out today. Many will have been scuppered by local issues, whether that is the specific issue of the Plymouth tree massacre, or the more general malaise caused by unfixed potholes, badly scheduled bin collections, or the terrible truth that someone can always be a bigger NIMBY than you. 

Nonetheless, it is the unfortunate reality that these elections will largely be read considering what they mean for Westminster, not the residents of Stoke, Maidenhead, or elsewhere. This article is guilty as charged. But that this is the case also reflects how hollowed out our local system of government is. Even with recent gestures towards devolution, our country remains unusually centralised

If today’s results are seen as nothing more than an over-large opinion poll, it is because both the Tories and Labour have been willing to restore to our councils and local authorities the power and responsibility that should rightfully be theirs. If Sunak is serious about winning the next election, that is a manifesto commitment he should aim not to swerve. 

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William Atkinson is Assistant Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.