8 May 2021

There’s one simple lesson from this mixed bag of election results

By

In 2010, as a bright-eyed and politically enthusiastic student, I wrote to my MPs to demand that they act to ‘save general election night’.

This was a campaign to protect the overnight counting of the results – and thus the theatre and drama of what remains the political nerd’s World Cup – from the threat of Friday or even Saturday counting by penny-pinching councils.

And if there’s one thing I’m sure of at this weird inflection point in the flow of results from ‘Super Thursday’, it’s that overnight counting for all British elections should be mandated by law. If councils need a little extra cash to make that happen, the Chancellor should find it.

Still, unless there’s a shock update today the story of these elections, below a lot of exciting churn, is really quite simple: pandemics benefit incumbents.

In England, Scotland, and Wales, governing parties which have held office for more than a decade (or two, in Cardiff’s case) have had great nights.

Conservatives have followed up crushing wins in the Hartlepool by-election and the Tees Valley mayoral race with a slew of local government gains, helping to entrench the party in the ‘Red Wall’ and further winnowing Labour’s activist base. Indeed, the vaccine bounce seems to have even made the battle for City Hall, which CCHQ had written off, more competitive than anyone expected – which only makes the Party’s failure to take the contest seriously all the more inexcusable.

In Wales, Labour have defied months of poor polling and look on track to retain a comfortable hold on power, perhaps even regaining an overall majority in the 60-seat Senedd. The Conservatives have picked up a couple of constituencies (potentially wiping out the Liberal Democrats in the process) but missed a slew of target seats.

This will cause recriminations amongst the Tories, who were bullish going in. The party is blaming a weak showing by Plaid Cymru – whose former leader, Leanne Wood, lost her seat to Labour – for propping up Mark Drakeford’s vote. 

But they also fell to a long-standing structural hurdle that hundreds of thousands of their general election voters failed to turn out for the Welsh Parliament. As a result, seat after seat that has a Tory MP returned a Labour MS. This abstention has also stung Abolish the Welsh Assembly, who were fishing in that pool and now fear they may return no MSs at all. 

As for Scotland, at the time of writing the result is on a knife-edge. That Nicola Sturgeon would remain First Minister was always entirely baked in: the key issue was whether or not the Scottish National Party could secure the one-party majority that they used to claim a mandate for a referendum after 2011.

The Nationalists have picked up several seats from the pro-Union parties. But these have been in the South of Scotland, the one area where they return MSPs on the regional list, so it may not help them much. The Tories holding onto Eastwood and a spectacular defence of Dumbarton (Scotland’s most marginal seat) by Labour’s Jackie Baillie (both seats in the West of Scotland region) mean that Sturgeon’s path to a majority is now a very slender one. 

It hinges on whether the SNP can take West Aberdeenshire off the Conservatives today, or put in a really spectacular showing in the regional vote. But Douglas Ross’s troops sound confident of posting a very strong regional vote themselves – it won’t have hurt that the Scottish Daily Mail and every other tactical voting operation urged unionists to give the Tories their ‘peach vote’.

For his part, Boris Johnson has already indicated that he will not grant the Scottish Government the Section 30 order required to hold a legally-binding vote on independence and will take it to court if necessary. 

Should Sturgeon fall short of an overall majority, the Government shouldn’t have any trouble staving off another referendum until at least the next Parliament. After all, there has been a separatist majority at Holyrood since 2016 and that didn’t trouble either Johnson or Theresa May unduly. Given the current state of affairs in Scotland, that’s about as good a result as unionists could expect.

Where the rest of the results leave the Union is more contestable. One commentator has suggested that the enduring strength of Welsh Labour is the best omen for the future of the UK, and of the Conservatives in England the worst.

I’m not so sure. Whilst it might aggravate the party’s more Thatcherite wing, it isn’t difficult to imagine that a Conservative Party that moved to the left on economic issues might find it easier to build a coalition in Scotland. Certainly, devolution makes it harder to construct genuinely British coalitions – just look at how differently ex-UKIP voters behaved on either side of Offa’s Dyke – but the direction of travel holds promise.

Even if Johnson isn’t the man to cement that alliance, imagine a future where the Tories are led by a figure who has come up through the realignment. There are deep cultural ties between Scotland and the North East that a future leader could draw upon, as well as useful lessons about the power of a positive message versus fear-mongering and dependency. Could it yet be Ben Houchen, saviour of the Union?

Meanwhile the success of Welsh Labour is a double-edged sword. Yes, suppressing the Plaid vote is good. But it is important to remember that there are costs to beating the nationalists by being the nationalists. Labour in Cardiff are a party that ran pro-independence candidates in this election; whose ministers accuse their London counterparts of harbouring “colonial attitudes”, and whose First Minister pitched to Plaid’s electorate by chuntering that the UK “is over”.

At a time when unionists need desperately to engage in a root-and-branch rethink, Drakeford’s performance provides intellectual cover to those who can’t move on from the old “more powers” orthodoxies that have failed the movement for the past two decades.

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Henry Hill is News Editor of ConservativeHome.

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