6 May 2022

Triumph and tribulation: Labour’s London performance can’t mask its provincial problems

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The local election results which have emerged so far in England paint a messy picture – one with no clear winners and losers. 

There is no denying that Labour had a stunning night in London, gaining three Tory-held flagship councils in the capital. Westminster and Wandsworth had been held by the Conservatives since 1964 and 1978 respectively. With Labour winning Barnet for the first time, they now control a record 24 councils in London, and the Tories are down to a paltry four.

The outgoing leader of Wandsworth Council, Ravi Govindia, said ‘the issue of Boris Johnson’ had lost the Tories many votes in the south-western London borough so often held up as a fine example of low-tax Tory localism. The loss of these totemic councils will concern a number of London Tory MPs, especially when one considers the fact that all three contain conservative-minded religious minorities that the Tories ought to engage with to broaden its electoral potential.

Labour should also take pride in gaining control of Brexit-leaning Southampton. However, for all their gains in southern areas, the results in the Midlands and parts of Northern England suggest the party still has a long way to go to recover its position in areas where they used to weigh the Labour vote.

The Tories increased their majority in Amber Valley – a local authority in eastern Derbyshire that voted 60.3% Leave. Likewise in Nuneaton & Bedworth, which voted 66.0% in favour of leaving the EU.

The change in the Warwickshire council in particular has been startling. Following the loss of the last Labour-held ward in Bedworth, there are now 27 Tory councillors – after the 2014 local elections, the party only had three.

Elsewhere in the Midlands the results were similarly striking. Although the Tories did lose control of Worcester City Council, they still hold handsome majorities in Dudley, Redditch and Tamworth. The forthcoming results from Cannock Chase, Walsall and Newcastle-under-Lyme may not make for especially good reading for Labour either.

Further north, Labour did win – handsomely – the inaugural contest for the newly-created Cumberland council, which covers Leave-leaning areas such as Carlisle, Copeland and Allerdale. However, there were underwhelming results elsewhere which should be cause for concern for Keir Starmer. In pro-Brexit Hartlepool, where the Conservatives won comfortably in last year’s by-election, Labour made no gains. In fact, the Tories increased their representation by gaining two seats previously held by independents. Bolton remains deadlocked with no clear winner – with the Tories narrowly increasing their lead over Labour in terms of overall councillor numbers. 

While much of the focus will be on historic electoral developments in London, Labour needs the support of Leave-voting traditional market towns in the Midlands if it wishes to return to government with a working majority. There remains a fundamental disconnect between London-dominated Labour and more culturally conservative voters in the pro-Brexit provinces. Along with the party’s dismal performance in Scotland, that remains the biggest barrier to Starmer gaining the keys to 10 Downing Street.

While some Labour sources suggest the party is suffering from ‘Long Corbyn’, the party cannot overlook the possibility that Starmer’s own enthusiasm for a second referendum is still playing badly among a decent chunk of voters.

Equally, the Tories need a serious period of introspection after their crushing losses in London – no serious government should be comfortable with performing this poorly in its own capital. Reducing regional inequality is a noble endeavour in one of the most inter-regionally unequal economies in the industrialised world – but the Tories cannot lose sight of the cost-of-living woes and various forms of economic precariousness in the capital.

The party is also are also running the risk of giving up on a pool of London-based ethno-religious minority voters where the traditional triad of faith, family and flag is well and truly alive. Nonetheless, Tory strategists will undoubtedly take heart from results across the Midland’s market towns and parts of northern England.

Although we’re still waiting on some of the results, one thing is certain – the English local elections have given both party leaders plenty to chew on.

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Dr Rakib Ehsan is the author of the forthcoming book 'Beyond Grievance', which is available to pre-order on Amazon.

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