4 May 2018

Welcome to stalemate Britain


When everything that is impossible has been ruled out, Sherlock Holmes decreed, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. At this moment in its history, however, British politics works slightly differently: when all the losers have been ruled out, whatever and whoever is left, is not necessarily the winner.

These latest local elections in England confirm as much. If the Tories have greater cause for satisfaction this morning — with more than two thirds of the results confirmed — it is only because their expectations were so very low to begin with. Survival feels like victory.

But survival is a low bar. The Conservative Party is strong enough to hold off Jeremy Corbyn but not, remarkably, strong enough to thump a Labour Party led by a leader whom only one in four voters actually think is the best available potential prime minister.

Then again, Labour isn’t strong enough to defeat a prime minister who plainly can neither inspire the country nor command the confidence of her own party. How, voters are entitled to feel, did we end up with this kind of choice? And when, by the way, will a better one be presented to the people?

Labour recorded their best results in Westminster and Wandsworth since 1986 and, thanks to the party’s extravagant expectations, it still felt like something a little like failure. If nothing else, that’s a reminder that Team Corbyn is not as sharp, in a purely political sense, as you might think it should be. The great London massacre of Tories did not materialise and in Barnet, the council home to Britain’s largest Jewish population, 70 per cent of the electorate voted and sent a keen message to the Labour leadership: some “smears” are based on truth.

True, Labour made gains elsewhere but most of these were modest and less than you might expect when confronting a Conservative Party that has been in power for eight grinding, mostly unpopular, difficult years. Corbyn saluted “an iconic victory” in Plymouth which, apart from being a crime against language, seemed a curious interpretation of a result which saw Labour regain control of a council they last held as long ago as 2015.

Even so, Tory cheerleaders might do well to temper their glee. Local elections are not national elections and do not offer a reliable guide to future voting patterns. As recently as last May, Labour won just 27 per cent of the vote in local elections; a month later the party took 40 per cent of the vote in the general election.

Granted, it is possible that the next Conservative general election campaign will not be quite as hapless and hopeless as the 2017 edition and it is also possible, even perhaps probable, that Corbyn’s charm — I use the word loosely — will be less attractive at the second time of asking. Voters who took a chance on a doomed Labour leader in 2017 may be warier of voting Labour at an election they think Corbyn might actually win.

Even so, other trends are apparent. The Tories are becoming the party of Brexit. Ukip’s annihilation confirms as much. If Brexit is important to you, the Conservatives are now your natural home. So long, that is, as you support Brexit. Liberal Tories unconvinced that Brexit really will be the promised bonanza find the Conservative party an increasingly chilly place. They cannot vote for Cobyn’s Labour Party but they are not enthused by May’s Tories either. A viable Liberal Democrat Party could do well with these voters but such a party does not, at present, exist. Jess Phillips, the no-nonsense Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley, put it well: “I see everyone is claiming failure as victory.”

Class, age, and identity create cross-hatched patterns. Older voters — especially important at local elections — remain the Tory Party’s not-so-secret grey base; Labour continues to extend its advantage with affluent professionals, making gains in places such as Kensington and Canterbury. Increasingly, the parties’ respective coalitions begin to look a little like those familiar from American elections. The Tories are the party of the rich, the old, the white and, importantly, the suburbs. Labour, the party of younger, city-dwelling, graduates and ethnic minority voters. Neither side can win a convincing victory without making inroads into the other parties strongholds. Neither seems capable of doing so.

I suspect that will remain the case until such time as Brexit has been completed (or, if you prefer, achieved). Only then will the system be unblocked; only then will the parties be able to start afresh.

And so, in the end, we fall back upon this truth: Theresa May cannot defeat Jeremy Corbyn and Jeremy Corbyn cannot defeat Theresa May. This is stalemate Britain in which the impossible faces the unacceptable. A hung parliament at Westminster, no overall control at local government level, and, above all, a hung electorate waiting for something — anything — to turn up and someone — anyone — to provide real clarity, proper leadership, and some compelling vision for the future. They will be waiting some time yet.

Alex Massie is a political commentator.