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Results not bad enough to oust Johnson, but not good enough for Starmer to be PM

Chris Hopkins Political Research Director 6 May 2022

The latest local election results are interesting, but perhaps slightly underwhelming. The major two parties have been expectation managing for weeks, and while it’s fairly normal for both to declare victory when the results have been counted, both do legitimately have a case here.

The consistent six point Labour lead in Westminster voting intentions tells us a few things; namely, that the Conservatives have recovered a little from the height of Partygate,

The results are poor but not disastrous for the Conservative Party, but that in itself will feel like a positive. When all have been counted, it’s likely that they will have lost 250-300 council seats across the UK, which is far from ideal, with the Prime Minister himself describing it as a “tough night”. But the mitigating factors around that, including where we are in an election cycle, and the vote coming in the wake of Partygate and in the midst of a cost of living crisis, means that things could have been far worse. The Conservatives also made gains from Labour in some key areas, such as Nuneaton, Sandwell and Amber Valley, that would give them comfort heading into the next general election.

For Labour, these results are good but not great. There are some headline scalps, notably taking control of Barnet, Wandsworth and Westminster councils in London, but the biggest individual result of the night is Labour winning the newly established Cumberland council, an area which currently boasts three Conservative MPs. The rest of its progress though, in England, is patchy.

The last time these council seats were up for election was 2018, and that provides much-needed context for any declaration of Labour success or failure, especially in the so-called Red Wall. In 2018, Labour still held the Red Wall, and had a reasonable degree of success in those areas in the 2018 council elections, and therefore standing still, or dropping back slightly in 2022 compared to 2018, feels like a lack of progress. However, given the Red Wall completely collapsed for Labour at the 2019 general election, getting a result now that mirrors that of 2018, would actually mark some sort of progress for Labour in the context of winning those seats back at the next election.

There also feels like there could be enough Labour progress in Scotland, squeezing the Conservative and Liberal Democrat unionist vote, to establish themselves as the clear second party; key for marketing themselves at the next general election as the best option for unionist voters to choose in order to beat the SNP.

Labour have called Friday’s result a “turning point”. Is it? Starmer does appear to have successfully stopped the rot, and has done enough over the local elections he’s presided over for the party to see tangible gains in terms of council seats and control, as well as just feeling like there is progress being made. Starmer does not turn some subsets of voters off on the doorstep in the same way that Jeremy Corbyn once did, but nor does he generate anywhere near the same level of enthusiasm that Corbyn generated, especially in 2017, among others. But the modest progress in the Red Wall and Scotland, while not progressing at all in other parts of England, is not enough to win a general election, and it still feels that Labour’s strategy is to win an election by being the least worst, and waiting for things to get so bad for the Conservatives that they win by default

The consistent six point Labour lead in Westminster voting intentions tells us a few things; namely, that the Conservatives have recovered a little from the height of Partygate, but not sufficiently to likely win the next election outright. However, it feels inevitable that the next election will be fought on the cost of living crisis, as nothing will matter more to voters than the money in their pocket. Voters will have to ask themselves three key questions: do I blame the Government for causing the cost of living crisis? Have the Government done enough to mitigate the impact of the cost of living crisis on people like me? And do I trust the Labour Party to do a better job if they were in government?

If the Government is blamed for causing the crisis, they’re toast. Put simply, the public will blame them for their decreased living standards and Labour would waltz to victory. However, if that isn’t the case – and our polling and focus groups indicate that the pandemic, the war in Ukraine, and other factors are more directly to blame – it will then depend on whether voters feel the Conservatives did enough to help, and whether Labour would do any better. Given the public’s reaction to Rishi Sunak’s Spring Statement, including the plummeting of his personal approval ratings, and the fact that polling suggests that the public are now more likely to trust Labour on the economy and taxation, there’s enough to suggest that Labour are on course for the General Election victory.

But these local election results, frankly, are not the results of a government in waiting. There does appear to be something holding people back from actually voting Labour at the ballot box, and therefore things either have to get much worse for the Conservatives, or much improved for Labour, before we’re likely to see Starmer in No 10.

Maybe Starmer should be credited for playing the long game, biding his time and waiting for the Conservatives to screw up. It certainly looks like that could happen, with an increasingly unpopular Prime Minister, few Cabinet heavyweights to lighten the load, and a cost of living crisis being the key driver for how people will vote now and in the immediate future all giving the Conservative Party headaches. But ousting Johnson feels unlikely; he is somewhat immovable due to a lack of credible leadership alternatives who’d want the poisoned chalice of becoming Prime Minister during an economic crisis, and the results of these elections would not be enough for even the most kneejerk of parties to try and remove a leader. Plus, while partygate could cause further anxiety, Beergate could mean Starmer too is dragged through the mud.

But scandals aside, without generating enough enthusiasm to actually win voters over, rather than just inheriting by default the ones the Conservatives lose, a majority for Labour at the next election – even a slim one – feels a pipe dream, and therefore for both parties the route to No.10 is no clearer after these local elections than it was before.