The best rule of thumb for this week’s UK elections is that the incumbents won. The Conservatives appear to have done well in England, and are almost certain to hold the West Midlands and Tees Valley mayoralties. Labour will probably hold Wales, London and Greater Manchester. The Scottish National party are expected to hold Scotland. The Tories took the parliamentary seat of Hartlepool for the first time since its creation in 1974, but they were in effect running as incumbents, given their majority at Westminster and their popular Tees Valley mayor.
Voters are clearly not in the mood for a change in leaders. They want to get out of lockdown and get behind the politicians who have taken them through the pandemic. If coronavirus didn’t provide enough of a crisis mentality, French fishermen briefly created a stand-off near the island of Jersey — allowing Boris Johnson to deploy the Royal Navy. None of these dynamics will last.
It is true, however, that after more than a decade in opposition Labour has still not found an electoral coalition that could return it to power. Hartlepool’s swing voters were not impressed by the party’s candidate, an NHS doctor who had campaigned against Brexit. Allegations of sleaze — Downing Street has refused to deny that Tory donors had been asked to pay for a nanny for Johnson’s son — did not register in voters’ priorities.
Sleaze is a hard card to play at the best of times. The 2009 expenses scandal figured only indirectly in the following general election: the voters whose MP had claimed £2,200 to clean his moat duly elected another Conservative, on an increased majority. This is not a reason for allowing it to pass unnoticed: it is why independent regulators are needed to safeguard public standards. Electoral incentives are not enough.
Johnson’s financial scandals are more detailed than the expenses debacle; voters living through a pandemic have other concerns; and what is more, unlike in 2009-10, most of them are not feeling a squeeze. Older voters are grateful for vaccines. House prices rose 8.5 per cent last year, which is nice if you own one.
Homeowners are disproportionately well-represented in Hartlepool. They are also among the major beneficiaries of the £182bn increase in household savings during the pandemic. If your finances are healthy, you are less likely to feel the government is taking money from you to give to its allies, for example through questionable PPE contracts.
The Conservatives have skewed the spending of public money along partisan lines, allowing affluent towns access to anti-deprivation funds. But why should voters object to pork barrel politics, when they are being promised the pork? Hartlepool voters will benefit from spending lavished on Tees Valley.
Ever since the Conservatives abandoned austerity under Johnson, Labour’s task has been harder. It’s easy to say that the party’s leader Keir Starmer should respond to the cultural conservatism of working-class voters — that he should, like Joe Biden, ignore the social justice language of Twitter. He has some of the right instincts, pitching himself as patriotic, and he is a former prosecutor who can be tough on crime.
The problem is that, where Biden is folksy, able to segue from his own family story to common-sense fairness, Starmer is wooden. To quote Pulp Fiction, personality goes a long way. Even so, the polling gap between Labour and the Tories has fallen from 17 per cent before the pandemic to 6 per cent now. At times it has been zero.
It’s too early to judge if Starmer can revive Labour, and it’s too early to write him off. Johnson has yet to present a plan for social care, the area that helped to undo his predecessor Theresa May. The public is forgiving of its leaders now, but it won’t forgive Gavin Williamson’s neglectful tenure as education secretary, including exam chaos, for long. An inquiry into coronavirus could be uncomfortable.
Brexit has reshaped the political landscape for the Tories, even though a plurality of voters consistently say that leaving the EU was a mistake. The electoral map disadvantages Remain voters by concentrating them in a few constituencies, and the party system accentuates this by dividing them between several parties.
The logical conclusion is that Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens should co-operate in the parts of England where they compete. In many areas, their policies are interchangeable. Some progressives would never vote for Labour under Jeremy Corbyn, but that obstacle is gone. The Greens may bring the fresh ideas that Labour lacks.
British politics is more volatile than it seems. The Conservatives have been in power for 11 years. They could well exceed their previous spell — 18 years — but the sailing won’t be this smooth for much longer.
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