With results from local elections in the UK coming in slowly it will be the end of Saturday before a full picture emerges. But the first results and the thumping victory for Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative party in the Hartlepool parliamentary by-election already offer a few key takeaways.
English voters are broadly satisfied with, or at least forgiving of, Boris Johnson’s handling of the pandemic. The issue rightly dominates public thinking and the elections were firstly a referendum on the government’s performance. The early indications are that Johnson’s support in England is at least at, and possibly above, its levels at the 2019 election. This means he has held on to those who voted for him then and may even have won back a few doubters. (Other incumbents, in Scotland, Wales, and the mayoralties, also appear to have been judged kindly by voters).
The fact that Johnson has come through the pandemic relatively unscathed is overwhelmingly down to the vaccine rollout. In December and January the Tories were down at 37 per cent in YouGov polls and even behind the Labour opposition. But voters credit the prime minister for the vaccine success and have discounted earlier errors during the crisis. The UK’s death toll remains the highest in Europe (though Italy’s is sadly closing in fast) but the judgment of those not implacably hostile has been generous.
Campaigning showed again that Boris Johnson has a powerful personal appeal which reaches beyond traditional party loyalties. While there are many irreconcilables, he is winning and retaining those ready to give him a hearing. His Brexit coalition, reinforced with a different brand of conservatism built around greater interventionism and commitment to state spending, has assembled a strong new electoral and demographic base which shows no signs of weakening. While some Tories talk of a day when the public tires of his style and he is replaced with a more managerial figure like Rishi Sunak, Johnson has a star quality which will not be easily replicated.
It is promising to be a grim weekend for Labour. The Hartlepool defeat was at the very worst end of expectations. It showed the steady Conservative encroachment into traditional Labour heartlands is not over, and their strategy of - for a start - just appearing to care about the regions means they are in this fight for the long haul. Hartlepool reinforces the trend of the 2019, and indeed the 2017, general election results and shows the Tories have found a way back into significant chunks of the north, especially outside the major cities. That Johnson’s electoral coalition is holding also suggests Brexit will have a more lasting effect on voting patterns and political identity.
The massive win for Ben Houchen, the most visible northern standard bearer of the new interventionist Toryism who was re-elected as Tees Valley mayor with 73 per cent of the vote, and early council wins in the Midlands show the Tories are winning in their target areas. The conservative Andy Street looks well placed for re-election as West Midlands mayor. Labour is also still losing power in traditional areas, such as Sheffield. Even where there are victories, as in Wales and the anticipated re-election of Andy Burnham as Manchester mayor, these will not be not wins for Keir Starmer himself. The message is that not being led by his hard-left predecessor Jeremy Corbyn and moving on from Brexit are not enough for the party to win back lost voters.
The losses will intensify the battle for the party’s direction. The scale of Labour’s challenge was already large but without the currency of electoral success, Starmer is going to have to fight much harder to repel the Corbynite left, which is already beginning to attack his leadership. Meanwhile Blairites will berate his timidity in not moving faster towards the centre. The crisis for Labour is deep and long term. Starmer has so far failed to set out coherently any distinguishing sense of what the party stands for and Johnson has successfully occupied the political centre-ground, by mixing higher government spending, patriotic rhetoric and cultural conservatism.
Labour’s English heartlands are, increasingly, the major cities. Places with significant populations of diverse, university-educated, younger voters with a high level of renters are now core territory. This is part of Labour’s demographic problem. As its membership tilts ever more towards those areas, it risks looking increasingly like a party which does not really like the section of the voters it needs to win back.
Scotland will alter the story of the elections, with the result there threatening to change the political landscape of the UK. A majority for the SNP in the devolved Scottish parliament, or the SNP plus the pro-independence Greens, will alter the political dynamics of Britain and confront Johnson with demands for a second referendum. He will certainly refuse at first but constant stonewalling from London may play into nationalist hands.
The biggest unknown remains the scale of the pandemic aftershocks, not just on the economy but in public services — health in particular. Health backlogs and unemployment remain danger areas, as his new electoral base will expect him to deliver on public services and jobs across the regions. Opponents argue that the Tories will ultimately let these voters’ down but the last years have shown Johnson is keenly aware of his supporters’ priorities and will not lightly abandon them.