A thousand years in the making, the UK’s unique political settlement was on full display last week, when we saw the pomp and pageantry of a hereditary coronation occur just a day after local elections, where thousands of council seats were democratically contested around England.
With all the seats now counted, the political ramifications remain surprisingly unclear.
As predicted, Labour gained seats, increasing their haul of local councillors by more than 537, while the Conservatives lost over 1,000. Labour also gained full control of 22 councils, some in areas they need to win at the next general election.
But what does this really say about the prospects of Conservative PM Rishi Sunak and Labour’s Sir Keir Starmer when the country votes in the next general election?
Despite last week’s elections being local, the vote is generally seen as a barometer on how the political parties are doing nationally.
Rishi Sunak had already started damage control days earlier, presenting himself as the newly installed captain of a ship that needed steadying, a job he seems confident he’s achieved, as it featured in much of his messaging.
Unfortunately for him, the stature of captain he frequently presents is more Jack Sparrow than James Cook and the ship he claims to be steadying looks increasingly like the Conservative’s version of the Mary Celeste. The beef filet mignon might still be on the plates, but thousands of his political minions have vanished into thin air.
He’s suffered continued political turmoil, with a senior cabinet minister having to resign in the last few weeks due to bullying, the suspension of a backbencher who is now joining another political party and continued economic gloom and uncertainty throughout the UK.
For Sir Keir Starmer, the results were good but not election-winningly exceptional.
Analysis by polling expert Professor Sir John Curtice for the BBC found that if the local election results were replicated at a general election, it would leave Labour 14 seats short of the 326 needed for an overall majority, with a national swing of 12% needed for a majority of one, currently out of reach based on Labour’s results last week.
After the endless political maelstrom of the last couple of years, with the country having three PMs in as many months, the entire re-working of fiscal policy (and then back again) in a matter of weeks, national strikes in transport, education and healthcare and the increasing political problem of housing asylum seekers – you’d think Starmer would be tap-dancing his way to Number ten by now, with barely a problem in the world. But his route does not look that easy at all.
This is echoed by political analyst Phil Cowley who points out that in the last 40 years, the opposition party has entered government just twice – in 1997 and 2010. In both cases, that was preceded by a very impressive set of local election results.
Labour led by 21 and 16 points on the projected national share (estimates of local results if the whole country was voting) in 1995 and 1996 and the Conservatives led by 18 and 15 points in 2008 and 2009.
He has also calculated that whilst a double-digit lead is impressive, it’s not always enough; being ahead by twelve points in 2004 was not enough for the Conservatives in the 2005 general election, and being nine points ahead in 2000 was not enough for them in 2001.
So what’s not working for Labour?
Firstly, we have to give credit to Starmer for turning the party around since the disastrous 2019 general election led by his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn. Also shooting at an open goal thanks to ten years of damaging austerity measures and the chaos that had surrounded Brexit, Corbyn not only managed to shoot the ball into a neighbouring stadium but handed traditional ‘red wall’ seats to Boris Johnson, who inspired those traditional Labour voters with his (then) personal appeal, energy and dystopian visions of a UK with Corbyn as Prime Minister. For Starmer to have dealt with the many issues that Corbyn left behind to get to a point where Downing Street is at least in sight is a fine achievement.
Let’s contrast for a moment with Tony Blair’s 1997 landslide. There are parallels. The economy was stabilising but had been battered by recession, and numerous crises. The Tories had fatigued the entire country and the public wanted them out. That’s where Starmer is too. But Blair carried a vision. He represented more than just a change in government, no matter how welcome that was. He represented a hope in a more modern and progressive country, one that would blow away the cobwebs of Britain’s creaking constitution whilst implementing social and economic policies that would make real differences to the majority of Britons. And that’s where Starmer’s fleeting views of Number Ten disappear over the edge of the political stage.
It’s becoming increasingly urgent for Labour to set out a new vision that can make sense to voters’ lives. It needs to be a mix of something pragmatic, something that inspires and excites and something unexpected that can command media narratives.
Unfortunately, Labour’s vision sounds more like one of those Disney-funded gated housing developments in the USA; “to make Britain the best place to grow up in and the best place to grow old in”. Vote Labour and get a bed in a care home isn’t exactly the vision of a modern, progressive democracy that people want, as inviting as retirement may be.
Then there are the mission statements which include; “break down the barriers to opportunity at every stage” and “secure the highest sustained growth in the G7”.
It’s great if your audience is Linked-In and not real people with real problems. I prefer the easy to digest bluntness of the messages Rishi Sunak has been pushing, if not the sentiment of the final one: “halve inflation; grow the economy, reduce debt, reduce waiting lists (for NHS operations) and stop the boats”.
Labour’s struggle to engage are being echoed around Westminster. One former special advisor to Tony Blair told Aequitas Global:
“The local elections have shown the public are looking for change. But Kier now has to show that he is that change. The next twelve months are all about whether he – and the team around him – can rise to that challenge”.
But who are the people around him? In 1997 ahead of Blair’s landslide, the general public knew almost all the major players in the Shadow Cabinet by sight and by name. It was full of big hitters such as Gordon Brown, Donald Dewar, Margaret Beckett, David Blunkett, Harriet Harman and Jack Straw, all of whom were household names.
Today, more people have heard of Larry the Downing Street Cat than Labour’s front bench team. A YouGov poll showed that less than a third of British voters recognised a majority of the Shadow Cabinet, including just 6% for the then Shadow Home Secretary, a vitally important “law-n-order” role for Labour to impress on voters.
Older regulars from the last Labour government such as Ed Milliband and Emily Thornberry fared much better, but had low favourability ratings.
As one former Labour aide who now works as a senior communications director in healthcare told Aequitas Global:
“The Labour Party needs both policies and personalities to make front-bench figures household names and provide assurance and optimism for the future. This is a once in a decade opportunity to win back power and if this is missed as a result of being timid with policies or an unknown shadow team, it will be an opportunity lost for years to come”.
Of increasing importance will be the fate of the Liberal Democrats. Almost wiped out nationally at the last general election, their leader Sir Ed Davey had a good result last week gaining control of 12 councils. It is another remarkable political recovery that has led to Starmer being pressured into disclosing whether he would enter into a coalition with them if he fails to get a majority. Whilst Starmer refused to rule it out, the Liberal Democrats might remain cautious anyway, after the long-term damage their dalliance with the Tories did to them in 2010. However, some might argue that a partnership with a centre left party might finally detoxify the Liberal Democrat brand.
As King Charles III exited Westminster Abbey last week, he would have caught a glimpse of the seven living former PM’s who governed Britain before Sunak crowded into a corner of the Abbey. His mother had 15 of them in her 70 year reign. Remarkably, within 18 months he might already be on his third – but only if Starmer can start inspiring people with his own plans rather than relying on the continued drifting of Westminster’s Mary Celeste.