Opposition parties tend to do well in local government elections so May’s set of results, where Labour lost over 300 council seats along with the Hartlepool by-election, were a disappointment. More recent polling has not been encouraging either – the Conservatives are averaging around a 10% lead over Labour, and the Conservatives are now favourites to win the Batley and Spen by-election this week.
The seats at the local elections had last been contested in either 2017 (before two years of bitter disputes over whether to hold a second EU referendum) or in 2016 (before the first one had even taken place). The results confirm that, although Brexit is no longer the dominant issue in the UK, the country is still divided on Leave/Remain lines. Labour tended to lose most heavily in strong Leave areas, on the other hand Cambridge and Peterborough (where Labour’s Nik Johnson narrowly won the mayoralty on second preference votes) was evenly split between Remain and Leave, and the West of England where Labour also took the mayoralty had a strong Remain vote. The exception to this trend was Wales – which overall voted Leave but nevertheless saw a strong Labour performance. Welsh Labour partly profited (as all the governing parties in England, Wales and Scotland did) from a vaccine bounce, but also through expressing a distinct identity as Welsh Labour.
Looking in depth at recent polling we can see that when Labour pulled level with the Tories towards the end of last year, it was not because 2019 Conservative voters were switching directly to Labour. Instead we saw a large movement of 2019 Lib Dem voters switching to a post-Corbyn Labour party and at the same time, up to a quarter of the 2019 Tory vote moving to “Don’t Know” as the government’s handling of the Covid pandemic came under fire.
Yet many of these “Don’t Know” voters came straight back to the Tories in early 2021 as the success of the UK’s vaccine rollout program became the biggest news story in the country. On the Labour side we now see fewer 2019 Lib Dems switching. The most negative recent poll for Labour (YouGov on 3rd June showing an 18% lead for the Tories) has a fairly significant number of ex-Lib Dem voters now preferring to switch to the Conservatives. This poll also shows Labour losing 10% of its 2019 to the Greens and a further 19% to “Don’t Know”. The most positive recent poll (Opinium 17th May showing a 6% gap) has less of a move to the Greens, but both polls show a broadly equal number of voters switching directly between Labour and the Conservatives.
If Labour were gaining votes directly from the Tories, then the losses to the Greens (or failure to gain more Lib Dem voters) would be less of a problem. In Labour/Conservative marginals, switchers between the two main parties effectively count double (one vote off the Tory number, one vote added to the Labour number). But Labour finds itself caught in an uncomfortable pincer movement, where 2017 Labour voters who were lost to the Tories in 2019 have largely not returned, and simultaneously the party is losing votes on its left flank to the Greens.
Meanwhile in around 40 currently-held Labour seats (including Batley & Spen) the combined number of Brexit Party, UKIP or other right-wing nationalist party voters exceeds the Labour majority. If, as in Hartlepool, nearly all those voters switch to the Tories then these constituencies will also be lost. Just as concerning, Sir Keir Starmer’s net satisfaction ratings have tumbled since the beginning of the year and are now at the same level that Corbyn’s were at the same point in his leadership.
However, before despairing we need to look at some recent history. The very worst recent set of local government results for Labour were in 2017, yet only weeks later in the General Election, Labour reduced the gap to the Conservatives to 2%.
While there cannot have been a single Labour member who did not have an opinion about Jeremy Corbyn by 2017, political activists are a tiny percentage of the whole electorate. For many voters Corbyn was a relatively unknown quantity going into the 2017 General Election; the campaign itself played to his strengths and his favourability ratings improved dramatically in a matter of weeks. But Corbyn came under increased scrutiny during the contentious 2017-19 Parliament, where the lack of Tory majority gave Labour the opportunity to effect change. The more the public saw of him, the more his approval ratings dropped.
Starmer’s problem is exactly the opposite. The large Tory majority has left the Labour leader with little agency over what happens in the UK. Meanwhile, the fact that the Covid pandemic and the government’s response has (understandably) dominated the political agenda in the last year, means that the spotlight has been almost exclusively focused on what the Government is doing and not on what the Opposition is saying about it. The public overwhelmingly approves of the vaccine rollout, and most seem willing to forgive the government its earlier mistakes in the light of this success. Against this background, Labour has struggled to be heard; the result is that 2019 Tory voters have had little reason to change their minds.
There is palpable frustration within Labour that the Opposition has been unable to make an impact against a Prime Minister whose own chief adviser thinks he is unfit for office. There are many who worry that Starmer has not yet presented a coherent vision for a future Labour government and that the result of the next election is now in peril as a result. However it is worth remembering that as late as 2007, David Cameron (then Leader of the Opposition) was supporting Labour’s spending plans, and yet still managed to win the subsequent two elections claiming that Labour had catastrophically overspent. The relative invisibility of opposition means that earlier policy positions (or lack of them) are often not remembered.
If Corbyn (who by 2017 had already lost the confidence of 80% of his own MPs) can go into an election and be seen afresh by the voters, then Starmer can certainly do the same. The Chesham & Amersham by-election should also give Labour hope because it demonstrates the fragility of the Tory coalition between many of its traditional wealthy, often liberal voters, and its more working class, socially conservative supporters. The new willingness of Tory Remainers to abandon the Conservatives for the Liberal Democrats must be related to the fact that Corbyn was desperately unpopular with this group, whereas Starmer is much less so.
But it is also crucial that we go into the next election with the right policies and right messaging. We will need a clear narrative describing what a future Labour government would look like and how it would be fundamentally different and better than the current administration. There is absolutely no doubt that it will be an enormous challenge for Labour to even be the largest party in the next Parliament given the scale of the 2019 defeat, but it is not impossible. Don’t panic (yet).