Saturday May 07, 2022
Local elections suggest Keir Starmer could be next PM
Keir Starmer and Boris Johnson. File
John Rentoul, The Independent
The local election results in England so far are good for Labour without being great. Labour has done well in London but less well elsewhere. The Conservatives have done badly in areas with a lot of graduates but actually gained support in areas with few graduates. In London, Labour has gained control of visible and symbolic councils: Westminster, which has never been Labour; Wandsworth, a Tory beacon of low council taxes; and Barnet, with a significant Jewish population. In each case the change is mainly because the Tory vote has gone down more than the Labour vote increasing, but it is the difference between the two that matters most and Labour has been disappointed in those places so many times before.
Two immediate reactions to these results can both be true. One, these are good results for Keir Starmer. Two, they are not the kind of results that presage a Labour majority at the next general election. However, Labour does not have to win a majority for Starmer to be prime minister, and these local elections are consistent with the Conservatives losing their majority in parliament.
What matters in a two-party system is the difference in share of the vote between the two largest parties. The English local election results suggest that Labour is doing a little less well than the national opinion polls suggest, but would still be ahead of the Conservatives if people had been voting everywhere. There are big regional differences, and some big differences related to Brexit. The Labour Party’s number-crunchers claim that the party has won the most local votes in a number of parliamentary constituencies that voted Leave (and Tory) at the last general election, including Copeland, Hartlepool, Leigh, Peterborough, four seats in the West Midlands, Worcester and Workington.
But Labour hasn’t made big council gains in Leave-voting areas – it took control of Cumberland, but that is a new council – and Sky’s analysis of the educational divide between graduate and non-graduate areas suggests that the realignment of politics by which the Tories replace Labour as the party of working-class non-graduate Leave voters is continuing. The other feature of that change is that Labour is not the sole beneficiary of the opposite trend, by which middle-class graduate Remainers desert the Tories. Sky’s analysis suggests that the Liberal Democrats rather than Labour have been gaining in graduate areas, and Ed Davey has certainly had a good night, although his party has gained control of fewer high-visibility councils.
Nor are the Liberal Democrats the only rival for the middle-class Remainer vote: the Greens have made gains too, although not as much as some Labour strategists feared. Local elections are not a reliable indicator of what might happen in a subsequent general election – although Tony Blair and David Cameron did both establish huge leads in share of the local vote before 1997 and 2010 – mainly because stuff happens.
But when the stuff that is likely to happen over the next two years is an unprecedented drop in living standards and a stalled economy, Boris Johnson cannot rely on the usual rhythm of swing and swing-back in party support. If yesterday’s local votes were translated into a general election, and ignoring the lower turnout, the outcome would be a hung parliament in which Keir Starmer would be prime minister.
here is a big difference in perceptions of a hung parliament in which Starmer needs the tacit support of the Scottish National Party – which would be forthcoming, because it cannot facilitate a Tory government – and one in which he could rely on the Liberal Democrats alone for a majority, but the precise distribution of seats is impossible to predict at this distance.