The Local Elections: Much Ado About Nuneaton

Peter Pulzer, the British political scientist, wrote in 1967: “Class is the basis of British party politics; all else is embellishment and detail.”

The 2018 local elections have turned that common wisdom on its head. Whereas the docker or the coal miner in the Summer of Love would almost certainly have been a Harold Wilson supporter, today that retiree would more likely vote for the Maybot.

These elections were an underwhelming affair. A lot of hype preceded it, with many on the left expecting a great victory for Labour. Most were expecting the fall of one or more Tory London flagship: Westminster, Wandsworth, even Kensington and Chelsea.

Here were political scientists’ Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher’s predictions: Labour gain of 200, Tory loss of 75, Lib Dem gain of 30 and UKIP losing most, if not all of their seats. Labour’s leader in Wandsworth, Simon Hogg, said his party’s chance of taking the council were 50/50.

Nothing much happened in these local elections

How wrong they all were! If the last couple of years have taught us anything, it’s that political predictions should not be taken too seriously. Many of the traditional psephological adages no longer apply.

The Conservative vote is strong or growing fastest in the Leave-voting areas, many of them working class constituencies that were once true red: Sunderland, Walsall, Nuneaton, Bolton and Dudley to name a few. Labour were strongest in the culturally liberal metropolises and university towns that voted Remain. Results show the new divide in English politics is not so much middle-class Tories versus working class Labour, but more the Provincial Party (Conservative) versus the Urban Party (Labour).

This divide has arisen partly due to collapse of UKIP, or the ‘Black Death’ as its General Secretary Paul Oakley compared it to (well, both were Eurosceptic in their own ways). The majority of ex-UKIP voters have transferred their allegiance to the Conservatives. They are not only making the party of Ken Clarke more Eurosceptic and anti-immigration, they are also making it more working class.

In areas where UKIP used to have significant support, Tory gains were strong. In places where more than six in ten voters supported Leave, the Tory vote share increased by 13 percentage points. Outside the most strongly pro-Remain region, London, the Tory vote share increased by eight points while Labour’s surged by only seven points. Remain London swung to Labour to give them their best result in the capital since 1971. It would have been higher had the party dealt better with their anti-Semitism problem.

If the last couple of years have taught us anything, it’s that political predictions should not be taken too seriously.

What’s more noticeable is how England is becoming more geographically polarised. Professor Matthew Goodwin, Senior Fellow at Chatham House and Politics Professor at the University of Kent, says Labour won more votes, but in an incredibly nucleated fashion: “Labour is stacking up votes in areas of the country where it does not need them, he said in a BBC interview.

The professor, who has extensively studied UKIP, was devastating in his analysis the party’s performance: a “disastrous night.” “To put it into perspective,” he said, “just four years ago, they contested over half of all available seats. This time around, that came down to 12%. They weren’t even standing candidates in some very pro-Leavey (sic), pro-Brexit areas.”

He is not remiss to say that Eurosceptic populism is dead. It’s merely migrated, mostly to the Conservative Party. Sir John Curtice of the University of Strathclyde echoes Goodwin’s findings; he estimates that more than 70% of Conservative voters voted Leave in the 2016 EU Referendum. “[The Conservative Party] has to deliver Brexit,” he said, because their voters are counting on it. These local elections could easily change the Brexit negotiations. Theresa May might have a lot of angry supporters this time next year if she doesn’t deliver a hard Brexit.

Nothing much happened in these local elections. Apart from putting Nuneaton on the front page, it was a damp squib, with no huge electoral shocks. But they have made Brexit a hotter potato for the Prime Minister.

Elliot Keck

“Nothing much happened in these local elections”, as Harry summarises. Precisely. And while there will be no victory march, Tory activists to whom I have spoken have exuded a suppressed glee at this non-event. Coming off the back of one of the most tumultuous periods of this Conservative government, the circumstances for this local election could not have been more ominous for the Tory Party. Scandal surrounding the deportation of thousands of legal residents from Britain to the Caribbean? Check. A straight line from the policies of a Tory Home Secretary to this scandal? Check. The elevation since of this former Home Secretary to the post of Prime Minister? Check.

It truly could not have been worse. Combined with the boiling over of Brexit tensions within the cabinet and you have an electoral disaster waiting to happen. Indeed, the local elections were focused on the worst possible location regarding the optics of recent events: multicultural, remain-supporting London. The proverbial should have hit the fan.

the circumstances for this local election could not have been more ominous for the Tory Party

It didn’t. Outside of London, the Tories performed well and actually gained seats (although they were a net negative in terms of council control). Within London they fended of Labour challenges in Wandsworth, Kensington and Chelsea, and Westminster alongside holds in Hillingdon, Bromley and Bexley. The only councils they lost control of were to the otherwise non-electorally threatening Liberal Democrats in Richmond and Kingston. In Barnet, a key target for the Labour Party in the elections, the Tories actually made a gain (although the council was under Conservative control up until March of this year). Remarkably, the local elections in Barnet actually revealed a relative appeal of the Conservatives to their principal opponents, the Labour Party, currently mired in an anti-Semitism scandal.

Much ado about nothing encapsulates the result; it also encapsulated the best-case scenario for the ruling Conservative Party.

With contributions from Editor-in-Chief, Elliot Keck