With a significant set of local elections taking place across the UK, what are the key takeaways and what does this mean for the stability and direction of the government?
Despite the Conservative Party’s best attempts to manage expectations over the losses they were likely to face – talking about 800 seats at risk, far beyond what was ever likely – this set of election results is towards the upper end of disappointing outcomes.
The political realignment seen in recent years has been reinforced by this set of election results. The Conservatives were able to stem the losses nationally by holding on – and even making gains – in Leave voting heartlands, particularly in the midlands. However, it was a very different picture in Scotland, London, other metropolitan and urban areas – losing seats in Greater Manchester and Hull – and in large swathes of southern England, the so-called ‘Blue Wall’. In these areas – particularly places like Oxfordshire, Cambridge and Somerset – the party predominantly lost out to the Liberal Democrats.
In a mixed night for Labour, the party’s shown progress but the results also highlight the huge mountain it still has to climb. Winning control of councils covering target seats in both southern England – Crawley, Worthing and Southampton – as well as in the so-called ‘Red Wall’, including Cumberland which includes three marginal constituencies allows it to show that it’s building momentum and give some confidence to members that Starmer will enable the party to grow its seats total at the next General Election.
However, the reality is that it’s not currently doing enough to win a majority in 2024 – or before, if speculation is to be believed. Analysis of these results show that translating the national vote share into parliamentary seats would see a hung parliament, with no party even close to a majority. With Labour more easily able to secure the support of other parties, they’re more likely to be in the driving seat but these results will be a reality check for those expecting a Labour majority government in two years’ time.
With Labour improving but not making major gains, it’s the Liberal Democrats and the Greens who have been the main beneficiaries. Over recent election cycles, the Lib Dems have established a much greater foothold across much of southern England, reinforced by these results. For both parties this will build confidence amongst activists ahead of the next General Election, with the Lib Dems likely to go into the upcoming Tiverton by-election feeling bullish.
One of the most significant – although largely ignored set of elections this side of the Irish Sea – has been those to the Northern Ireland Assembly. Although the results are still coming in, Sinn Fein are likely to emerge as the largest party for the first time, with the DUP consolidating their position, the liberal Alliance making major strides forward and the more moderate UUP and SDLP the main losers.
With significant concerns over the Northern Ireland Protocol – and perhaps unspoken the prospect of a republican First Minister creating pressure for a border poll – the DUP are likely to refuse to enter power sharing, resulting in the prospect of direct rule from London, fresh elections and a potential constitutional crisis. Unionists will be hoping this will place pressure on the UK government to act definitively on the protocol, making clear to the EU that it’s not sustainable.
Boris Johnson will come under renewed pressure from his backbenchers to deliver a policy agenda and style of government that will reattract soft Tories in the ‘Blue Wall’ who have wavered to opposition parties. Ultimately this is where the majority of his MPs hold their seats – there will be an increasing cohort of nervous faces in 1922 Committee meetings worried that these results could be replicated at the next General Election.
However, while the Conservatives did reasonably well in the so-called Red Wall, they still need to consolidate. The government faces a critical question as to how to manage the tension between the varying priorities of different voters and constituencies in its electoral coalition.
With interest rates rising and inflation set to reach 10% by the end of the year, the government will come under renewed pressure to act on the cost of living. Next week’s Queen’s Speech is likely to be judged as to how far the government is acting on this.
In the short term this set of election results is unlikely to give Johnson’s critics the cover they need to move against him. However a series of poor by-elections results in the Summer could provide an incentive.