Change or more of the same?

9 May 2023

The very last votes in Thursday’s English local elections have just been counted in Redcar. The overall results are unanimous about three things, uncertain about one, and have led commentators to ask a familiar, but misguided, question. DRD Partner, Pete Bowyer, attempts to answer the right one.

Image Source: The Times

What we know

There are three very clear takes from the 2023 local elections that almost everyone can agree on.

First, the results were a disaster for the Conservatives. Losing 1063 councillors, almost a third of all the seats they were defending, surpassed their very worst case scenario. Even Conservative commentators agree that this result leaves Rishi Sunak almost no chance of remaining Prime Minister following the next General Election – almost certain now to be Autumn 2024 after this drubbing.

Second, it was a spectacular result for the Liberal Democrats who gained an impressive 407 seats smashing through the so-called ‘Blue Wall’ of marginal Conservatives seats, largely in suburban Southern England. This leaves the Conservatives extremely vulnerable to a pincer movement of Labour winning back their Red Wall seats with the Lib Dems picking up Blue Wall ones.

Third, the Greens too had a remarkable evening gaining 241 seats. Despite losing their flagship, minority-controlled council of Brighton and Hove, who Labour took back comfortably, the Greens took majority control of their first ever council, Mid-Suffolk, whilst wreaking further havoc in the Conservatives shires.

The question on everyone’s lips

What was far from certain was whether it represented a good – or very good – result for Labour who gained a total of 537 seats, many directly from the Conservatives. Cue the inevitable, but misguided, question of whether Labour had done enough to put Keir Starmer in No.10 Downing Street next year leading a majority, or minority, Labour Government?

The answer really depends on your perspective. Conservative commentators seized on John Curtice’s ‘Projected National Share’ of the vote which showed a 9% swing to Labour and, especially, Thrasher & Rallings’ ‘National Equivalent Vote’ which showed a more measly 6% swing to Labour. Neither of these scenarios equated to the 10% swing (equivalent to what Tony Blair achieved in 1997) that would be needed to hand Sir Keir Starmer a majority of just one at the next General Election.

Labour strategists were less gloomy. As one very senior member of Sir Keir’s team privately WhatsApp’d me on Friday, “This is a projection of the result if there was a nationwide local election, not a projection of next year’s General Election. We know Lib Dems and others will never get that high in a GE and that vote will disproportionately go to us next year.” Putting these results into the party’s own constituency election model shows Labour winning an overall majority as the distribution of their vote was more efficient across target seats rather than building up unnecessary majorities in already safe seats.

This will give encouragement to reformers in the party who believe Sir Keir needs to be bolder with his future policy pronouncements in a bid to directly win over former Conservative voters by giving them a reason to vote for Labour, not just against the Tories.

Pete Bowyer, DRD Partner

The question that should be on everyone’s lips

However, the debate on whether these results mean Sir Keir will lead a majority or minority Government next year, misses the key question for each party: What will Labour do now to optimise its chances of forming a majority Government and, conversely, what will the Conservatives do to prevent that from happening?

Sir Keir initially trumpeted the results as indicating that he was on a clear course to enter No.10 next year. The message was nuanced over the weekend following media appearances on Sunday from Labour’s most trusted communicator, Wes Streeting MP who declared the party was “confident, but not complacent” and it was set in stone this morning by Sir Keir who warned party activists that “the hardest part lies ahead” as he launched the party’s ‘Cost of Living Crisis Plan’.

This will give encouragement to reformers in the party who believe Sir Keir needs to be bolder with his future policy pronouncements in a bid to directly win over former Conservative voters by giving them a reason to vote for Labour, not just against the Tories. It’s also likely to portend a more maximalist Shadow Cabinet reshuffle in the weeks ahead that will see under-performers sacked and a new generation of MPs promoted to the front bench to freshen up the party’s electoral appeal to Middle England.

Devastating local election results on this scale four years ago saw the end of Theresa May, but despite a few murmurings there is no appetite on the Conservative benches to change their leader now. The last six months have simply been too traumatic. Nevertheless, some have argued for the party to change course radically by offering immediate tax cuts and maximum diversification from EU regulation.

Wiser heads have counselled, paradoxically, that Rishi should do less, not more. Lord Barwell, Theresa May’s former chief of staff, argued over the weekend that whilst General Election defeat now looks inevitable for the PM, he should avoid the over-riding temptation of fiddling around with new, novel policies that will only make things worse. ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ may not be an Election winning strategy, but it may prove the Conservatives’ best defence to minimise the scale of their increasingly likely defeat next year.