23 April 2021

These local elections will set the tone for post-Covid politics

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One half suspects that a big reason that the Conservatives have managed 11 years in office whilst still being comfortably ahead in the polls is that the political narrative – not to mention their own leadership – changes too often for any of it to grow stale.

The sheer pace of events means that the era of David Cameron, Nick Clegg, and the Coalition feels scarcely less remote than New Labour. Even the grim chaos of Theresa May’s premiership and the ‘dead Parliament’ has been thoroughly eclipsed by the Covid-19 pandemic. 

And with the vaccination programme well underway, how long until a new narrative replaces that?

Perhaps as soon as next month, when various bits of the country face elections which could help to reshape the political landscape once again as we march towards the next general election, most likely (assuming the Government does scrap the Fixed-term Parliaments Act) in 2023 or 2024.

By far the highest-profile election is Scotland, where the SNP are fighting to secure a second overall majority and thus, they claim, a mandate for a re-run of the 2014 referendum on independence.

It’s a vicious and deeply unedifying campaign. A separatist majority looks all but certain, yet its character is much less obvious. Whilst the Greens have proven reliable foederati to the Nationalists in the past, Alex Salmond’s new Alba Party exists to feed on divisions in the movement and make life difficult for Nicola Sturgeon.

Salmond’s presence puts a spotlight on manoeuvres his successor would rather her activists didn’t notice, not least the SNP’s decision not just to minimise references to independence on some of its literature but to remove it outright from their ballot paper designation, as well as new talk that the Covid-19 pandemic might, who’d have thought, push back the timetable for another vote.

Things are scarcely better on the pro-UK side. The Conservatives, desperate to hold on to second place, have taken to putting the Nationalists’ core message – vote SNP, get a referendum – at the centre of their campaign. Given that Boris Johnson has repeatedly ruled out granting one, this suggests either they’re lying to the voters or they think the Prime Minister is.

Meanwhile the Liberal Democrat leader has branded his Tory counterpart a ‘dark force’ whilst George Galloway’s All for Unity mount an increasingly vitriolic effort to woo hardcore unionist voters away from the major parties. Only Labour, under its new leader Anas Sarwar, seems to have not yet got stuck in the mire.

In Wales, meanwhile, Labour seems to have recovered their position somewhat after early polling suggested the Conservatives were on track for a stand-out performance. But the details of the size of their lead matters less than the fact they look unlikely to be able to stitch together a majority with the Lib Dems and independents.

(Indeed, the Lib Dems could be wiped out altogether. They are predicted to hold their one constituency seat, Brecon and Radnorshire, but it is comfortably Tory at Westminster and their incumbent MS is retiring.)

This feeds into the really big development in Welsh politics in recent months: the rise of Abolish and the subsequent abandonment by the Conservatives of their long-held ambition of forming an anti-Labour coalition with Plaid Cymru. The result of this is a Senedd divided into two ‘blocs’, polarised around the constitutional issue.

That’s good news for Labour in the short term – it essentially guarantees their grip on office. But it risks pushing the party (which is already running pro-independence candidates) even more deeply into the arms of the nationalists, opening up the long-term danger of falling into the same pit as the Scottish and Irish Labour parties did when constitutional politics comes to dominate. Can it keep out-nat-ing the nats, whilst still holding on to pro-UK voters?

In England again, there seems to be more danger for Labour than the Conservatives. Shaun Bailey’s campaign for the London mayoralty has been abysmal, but whilst their deteriorating position in the capital ought to bother the Tories more than it seems to, a defeat at City Hall has been entirely priced in by now.

Elsewhere, the party has good prospects of holding on in both Tees Valley and the West Midlands, where new polling puts Andy Street comfortably ahead of Liam Byrne. Retaining these means the party will hold an advantage defending marginal constituencies in both areas at the next election, and can continue to use both to put flesh on the bones of the new, less Thatcherian Toryism ushered in by the last election.

It’s the same story in Hartlepool. Aside from a few injudicious remarks by anonymous Conservatives – one of whom suggested the party could only lose if Houchen himself stood for Labour – losing the by-election isn’t going to do the Tories much damage. For Sir Keir Starmer, on the other hand, it would be a disastrous capstone to his first year as Labour leader. It may even stop him getting a second.

Labour efforts to regain ground in England stalling whilst their Welsh comrades get into bed with the separatists; a showdown between Downing Street and Bute House over Scottish independence; and all whilst the Government desperately tries to resolve the Irish Protocol before it becomes the defining issue of next year’s Stormont elections.

Plenty of material to ensure that by the next election the pandemic feels about as old hat as Brexit does now.

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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.