Setbacks for Labour in a Divided Kingdom

A brief look at the results of the UK’s recent regional and local elections.

by Florian Weis, Tsafrir Cohen

In addition to a by-election, Scottish and Welsh parliamentary elections as well as local authority mayoral, local council and police and crime commissioner elections were held across the country on 6 May 2021. Due to the wide range of positions up for grabs, the various voting systems in place and vastly different voter turnout (roughly 63% in Scotland, 47% in Wales, 42% during the Hartlepool by-election and less than 40% across most local elections), it is difficult to draw a clear picture from the results. One thing that can be said, however, is that the Labour Party suffered heavy losses in local council elections while the Conservatives made gains, which is rather unusual for a party that has been in power for eleven years. Although it is difficult to judge how these widely diverse results would translate into parliamentary seats in a general election, it is clear that the remarkable comeback that the Labour Party has been staging since the summer of 2020 has stalled; instead the party appears to have made almost no gains since suffering devastating defeat in December 2019.

Teflon Boris: the Conservatives’ astonishing success

The Tories, on the other hand, have once again established a solid lead over Labour. Boris Johnson and his administration are still firmly in the driving seat despite their devastating handling of the pandemic last year that has cost 130,000 lives and counting, chronically underfunding the country’s National Health Service, accusations of corruption and the mudslinging Johnson has engaged in with former chief advisor Dominic Cummings. Time and again, Johnson, an Old Etonian and an Oxford graduate, manages to successfully portray himself as a populist fighter battling the very cultural and political establishment he has belonged to all his life. And he presents his party and his government as a force for change, despite having the reins of power firmly in their grasp for eleven years.

But now that the end of the coronavirus crisis is in sight, what policies will Boris Johnson and Chancellor Rishi Sunak pursue? Will they remain committed to the recent state interventionist policies that were necessitated by the pandemic? Will this Conservative government, one that imposed harsh austerity policies until at least 2016/17 that it has barely tweaked since, really be willing to increase taxes on the middle and upper classes as well as on global corporations to help overcome the challenges posed by the pandemic and finance the development of the NHS and public infrastructure? Many have their doubts. Yet since Prime Minister David Cameron and his chancellor George Osborne left office in 2016, the Conservative Party and its policies have been undergoing a transformation that – if one looks past the populist, nationalist rhetoric – certainly appears contradictory and fraught with tension.

The Tories performed well in both Scotland and Wales, claiming between 22% and 26% of the vote: they became the second-largest party in the Scottish parliament, winning 31 out of 129 seats, and notched up similar results in Wales, where they now hold 16 out of 60 seats in Cardiff. However, it should be noted that the majority of these elections last took place in 2016 right before the Brexit referendum, and last time Nigel Farage’s right-wing UK Independence Party performed well. The decline of UKIP and Farage’s next political vehicle, the Brexit Party, is now mainly benefitting the Conservatives. Nowhere was this more apparent than in a by-election held in the northeast English town of Hartlepool, a seat that Labour had held since 1964 and has now lost in spectacular style to the Tories.

Defeat for Labour but a faint glimmer of hope

18 months after its fourth general election defeat in a row, the Labour Party remains in the doldrums. The party’s remarkably improved performance in opinion polls since summer 2020 seems to have evaporated. During these recent elections, Labour lost most heavily in many English local councils while the Conservatives made gains. The Greens also saw a significant boost to their voter share and the Liberal Democrats, England’s third-largest party, was more or less able to repeat the results of 2016/17.

Labour was offered a glimmer of hope by the results of the mayoral elections that took place in many metropolitan areas as well as the Welsh parliamentary elections, where the party has continuously held the office of First Minister since the devolved parliament was created in 1999. Under the leadership of Mark Drakeford, whose political style is sometimes derided as rather dull and boring, Labour managed to increase its voter share to 40%, winning 30 of the Welsh Parliament’s 60 seats and thus retaining power. Progressive nationalist party Plaid Cymru struggled to get above 20% of the vote and ended up finishing third behind the Conservatives with 13 seats. Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, Drakeford came across as reliable and thus was viewed positively. Prof. John Curtice, a political scientist known for his election analysis on the BBC, believes these elections could plausibly be seen as a general endorsement of how political actors handled the pandemic in their respective countries: the Conservatives made gains in English councils, the majority of England’s incumbent mayors retained their seats, the Scottish National Party and its leader Nicola Sturgeon won in Scotland and the Labour Party performed well in Wales. The relatively fast and successful vaccine roll-out has almost certainly benefitted the Conservatives but also, to a lesser extent, those ruling regional governments.

London and Greater Manchester: partial success for Labour

During Tony Blair’s premiership, and then later, under successive Conservative governments, steps were taken to gradually introduce directly elected mayors for large cities and now also metropolitan regions. However, their level of authority varies depending on the place and region. A truly systematic regionalisation of politics that would tackle the huge concentration of power in Westminster thus so far remains lacking. While the interest in such structural devolutions of power and local politics generally remains low in England – as evidenced by poor voter turnout – the rising visibility of some mayors paired with widespread, but vague, bitterness about ‘London’ in large parts of northern England could potentially lead to a systematic regionalisation and decentralisation of power in the long term. This should interest the Labour Party especially.

Following Ken Livingston (2000–2008) and Boris Johnson (2008–2016), two out-and-out eccentrics and provocateurs in their respective parties, the more even-handed Sadiq Khan (50) has now also managed to win a second term as Mayor of London with a voter turnout of 41%. However, he was unable to secure a majority in the first round of voting with just 40% and needed second preference votes to achieve a 55% majority and defeat his main rival, the Conservative candidate Shaun Bailey, who is no stranger to brash remarks and right-wing views. Sian Berry secured a respectable vote share for the Greens (8%) while the candidate for the Women’s Equality Party, Mandy Reid, failed to reach even 1% of the vote.

Many are thus invariably pinning their hopes on Khan, who is seen as a centrist figure in the Labour Party and whose new term in London will also be his last. Those on the left of the party, however, are instead looking optimistically at Paul Dennett, who secured a majority on first preference votes alone (59%) in Salford; although it must be said, turnout was extremely low (28%). Among other Labour candidates, a notable victor was Andy Burnham, who won re-election as mayor of Greater Manchester with 67% of the vote (again, turnout was also low here at just 34%). Burnham (51) who held cabinet posts under Gordon Brown until 2010 and ran for party leader in 2015, losing out to Jeremy Corbyn, is one of the few Labour politicians to make their voices heard against the Conservative government during the pandemic by forcefully calling out the ignorant centralism of the Johnson government and the lack of funds made available to the northern English regions. It thus comes as no surprise that Burnham, who is considered a ‘moderate’ and seen to be on the right of the party, is already being touted as a possible successor to Keir Starmer.

Although it seemed sensible for the newly elected party leadership, which only took over in April 2020, to initially take a cautious approach to opposition with an eye on the long game, in no small part due to the Tory party’s landslide election victory in 2019 and the COVID-19 pandemic, it also meant the Labour leader was unable to effectively communicate his policy platform or engage with the public. The recently announced shadow cabinet reshuffle is necessary given the low profile of a majority of its members. However, the way in which Starmer and his team singled out deputy leader Angela Rayner for criticism and unjustly tried to make Rayner, a very independent member of the party left who is not loyal to Corbyn and a politician effective with the media, largely responsible for the party’s electoral woes shows a lack not only of authority but of inclusive leadership. Even if Rayner will now be given a leading role with even greater visibility, Starmer’s actions have already damaged the party and considerably weakened his own position.

A clear but not resounding victory for Scotland’s nationalists

In Scotland, the SNP, who have controlled the Scottish parliament since 2007, and their popular First Minister Nicola Sturgeon were the unsurprising victors. With a comparatively high turnout (63%), the SNP won roughly 48% of the constituency vote and 40% of the regional vote, only a slight improvement on their results in the 2016 local elections and the 2019 general election. The SNP only just missed out on an absolute majority in the Scottish parliament (claiming 64 out of 129 seats), but this would have been largely symbolic as the effect on day-to-day politics would have been minimal. Together with the pro-independence and left-wing Scottish Greens, who slightly increased their number of seats to eight, the pro-independence faction now has a stable majority. Considering the major events that have taken place in recent years, not least the Brexit referendum, Boris Johnson’s election victory, the UK’s actual departure from the EU and the pandemic, there was remarkably little change from 2016. Although Scottish Labour lost two seats and is now significantly behind the Scottish Conservatives in Holyrood (it has 22 seats compared to the Tories’ 31), it was able to secure its voter share, albeit at a low level, under its new leader Anas Sarwar. Interestingly, in some constituencies there were clear signs of tactical voting against the SNP by those who wish to see Scotland remain in the United Kingdom. The outcome of a second Scottish independence referendum, which Sturgeon will now pursue, is anyone’s guess, not only due to the possibility that Boris Johnson’s government will try to block the move (and the SNP certainly has little appetite to copy the Catalan government and hold an illegal referendum). While not all SNP and Green Party voters will inevitably vote for independence, the vast majority of Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat supporters in Scotland can be expected to vote for the country to remain in the United Kingdom. The result will thus, in all likelihood, be very close.

Brexit, the (English) arrogance of the Johnson government and Westminster’s devastating handling of the pandemic last year could further boost Scotland’s desire for independence. Yet there are also conflicting pressures: in times of so much uncertainty, some Scots do not want to risk yet another major disruption. The union between Scotland and England has existed for over three hundred years; untangling this partnership delicately will pose even greater challenges than Britain’s departure from the EU. It also remains to be seen whether Scottish hopes of fast-track EU membership for an independent Scotland will turn into reality.

There are two lessons to be learned from a Brexit process that has escalated into an all-out culture war. First, the losing side must be willing to accept the results of a democratic vote, but they also need to feel included, be actively involved and have a seat at the table. Both the 2016 Brexit referendum and the 2014 Scottish independence referendum have left deep divisions in local communities, and even some families, that will be difficult to heal. Second, it is objectively hard for the political left to cut through with nuanced messaging when it comes to simple Yes or No questions framed around state sovereignty. Even if those in support of Scottish independence are mostly from the political left or centre, it does not mean that an independent Scotland would automatically lead to a stronger welfare state and an end to the devastation caused by neoliberalism; in spite of the governing SNP’s undoubtedly progressive and inclusive agenda, the party’s policies are by no means consistently social or successful. Yet until now the SNP has been remarkably good at claiming responsibility for successes and blaming London for problems that arise. The task for the Labour Party, the trade unions and other members of the left is thus, on the one hand, to offer a third option in the referendum campaign – even more autonomy for Scotland while remaining inside the UK – and, on the other, highlighting social and economic policy issues and thereby setting themselves even further apart from the Conservatives than they did during the 2014 referendum campaign.

Originally pulished at the website of Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung (German)