Paul Montague-Smith, senior counsel for public affairs at MRM
Boris Johnson has been looking even more relaxed and happy than usual, and well he should be. The local elections results show that the success of the vaccination rollout has inoculated him and the government from political trouble.
The same is true, though, for the Scottish and Welsh incumbents, where both Nicola Sturgeon and Mark Drakeford have benefited from how they’ve been seen to have handled the pandemic.
How long immunity for Boris will last, we don’t know. But the Conservatives made some gains and chipped away further at Labour’s ‘Red Wall’.
Normally at this time of the electoral cycle you’d expect the party in power to lose hundreds of council seats and the control of large numbers of councils to opposition parties. Instead, the Conservatives added a net 235 councillors to their number and took control of 13 councils, while Labour lost a net 327 councillors and control of eight councils.
The scale of the wins in the Teesside mayoral contest and the Hartlepool by-election shook the Labour leadership, leading to a rushed, bungled and ultimately very limited reshuffle that served to widen divisions in the party and has once again sparked a fierce debate over what it must do to reconnect with voters and get into power.
Another flash point is looming if Labour lose the upcoming Batley and Spen by-election. New Labour architect Lord Mandelson – the former MP for Hartlepool – neatly made his view of what’s needed clear by summarising Labour’s electoral performance over the last 47 years: “lose, lose, lose, lose, Blair, Blair, Blair, lose, lose, lose, lose.”
Sir Keir Starmer finds himself between a rock and a hard-left place. The electoral challenge facing him is huge and he may not be given the opportunity to start scaling it proper. The party needs to win at least 125 seats at the next election for a majority – more than Blair did in 1997 and akin to Attlee in 1945.
Realistically, Starmer can only shoot for a hung parliament. In historical terms he may need to be the Neil Kinnock, who began wrenching the party back towards the centre, rather than a Blair figure himself.
‘King of the North’ and Labour moderate Andy Burnham showed what’s possible with strong, clear and passionate leadership in Manchester. But overall, the results in England suggest a significant and possibly lasting realignment of the political landscape might be underway.
At the last election Johnson had a 30-point lead among people who left school after their GCSEs, while if only graduates had been allowed to vote Corbyn would be PM. Having crossed the Rubicon of voting Tory to get Brexit done, Labour has so far failed to get their former voters back onside while the Tories have benefited from the demise of UKIP.
Last week’s Queen’s Speech is pretty much squarely aimed at reinforcing the gains the Conservatives have made in the Midlands and northern England, save for some red meat for right-wingers.
Put aside the measures on immigration, police powers, freedom of speech and voter ID and it is strikingly Blairite: reforms to drive house building; ensure lifetime skills, animal welfare, environmental, leaseholder and renter protection; abolish the NHS internal market; prevent violence against women and girls; provide more support for victims of crime; ban junk food ads and conversion therapy.
Johnson is going out of his way to acknowledge and address the fact that while talent might be evenly spread across the four nations, opportunity is not and that we need to ‘level up’ left-behind communities and ‘build back better’.
Combined with big infrastructure spending and transport reform the PM is parking Tory tanks firmly in the centre ground while being tough on illegal immigration which will play well in Brexit voting areas. They may lose some support in Southern England, but with UKIP gone and Reform not on the radar, they will be happy to take the risk for the prize of making lasting gains in the north.
If Labour try and outflank them on the left, they are likely to suffer the same fate as before.
Meanwhile fighting on the same ground as the Tories will provoke the ranks in Momentum, intensify internal battles and risk voters asking: ‘why bother changing horse?’.
Labour is being snookered and unless it can pull of a courageous, nifty trick shot it will continue to face a difficult, fractious future with power a distant prospect.