12 May 2022

Symbolic gains in London, but Labour still hasn’t convinced the country

Local Election highlights: 


  •     Boris Johnson not going anywhere, as Labour fail to swing a mortal blow in the north
  •     Astonishing result in London for Labour, taking the “crown jewels” of Westminster and Wandsworth
  •     Conservatives lose dozens of seats, but Liberal Democrats pick up many of their losses
  •     Based on these results, if the whole country had been voting, Labour would have 35% of the vote, the Conservatives 30% and the Lib Dems 19% (BBC)
  •     Result would lead to the Conservatives losing power, but with a hung parliament if replicated at a general election (Sky News)


It’s been many years since a Prime Minister faced so many different problems from so many different angles of attack. Theresa May didn’t exactly have a smooth ride as PM, but her challenge was essentially one issue, Brexit.  

Boris Johnson’s current plotline would embarrass even the most adventurous soap opera writers, with the PM’s bumbling over ‘party-gate’ making the satirical comedy show “Yes, Prime Minister” look like a documentary. He suffered the humiliation of receiving a police fine for attending an unlawful drinks reception during lockdown, with 10 Downing Street having the vibe of a nightclub for the Eton alumni rather than the bastion of law and order that it should be. The fact that ordinary people had to sacrifice their attendance at hospitals and funerals whilst the Conservatives were quaffing champagne at the nation’s seat of power had a big impact on voters from all demographics.  

Johnson has also suffered a parliamentary defection, numerous MPs declaring no confidence in his leadership and the pre-vote disaster of a backbench MP turning the famous green benches blue by watching explicit material on his phone in the chamber of the House of the Commons. Meanwhile, energy prices are pushing average earners into fuel poverty, whilst general inflation – which had almost turned into a political relic of an issue – has made a rampant return, seriously beginning to affect the middle class for the first time in almost 2 decades. 

But these elections are also reflective of how people are perceiving the other political parties as well. Labour’s Keir Starmer has done a great job of detoxifying the party after Jeremy Corbyn’s swing to the left, as well as the accusations of anti-Semitism that did so much damage to the party’s credibility as progressive and anti-racist. 

However, Starmer has failed to get people excited about Labour again and voters are struggling to know what he would do differently were he to gain power, other than to not be Boris Johnson.

We saw much of this translated at the ballot box yesterday, with a result that is undeniably damaging to Boris Johnson, with the political pendulum moving firmly, if slowly, toward Labour. But Johnson hasn’t been mortally wounded and won’t be going anywhere following this result. 

We also saw the continued renewal of the Liberal Democrats, who had been banished into political purgatory over a decade ago, following the collapse of their alliance with the Conservatives under David Cameron. So far, they are enjoying the most gains of any party last night, with over 100 new council seats so far, with many more wards yet to declare. 

They are the masters of local campaigning and last night’s result will embolden their party members to return to the front-line ready for the next general election. But they still have the same problem as Labour, in that nobody really knows what they stand for. If I was to ask you what their top three messages are, I’m not convinced any reader would know. Nor would I expect anyone away from the Westminster village to know who else is in senior positions within the Liberal Democrat’s parliamentary party. They need to immediately start a campaign to familiarise their policies and their people if they want to capitalise on last night’s success at the next general election.

With results still coming in, the biggest story for Labour has been its astonishing result in London, with the jewels of the Conservative crown, Westminster and Wandsworth turning into political dust overnight by swinging to Labour.  Westminster had been controlled by the Conservatives since 1964 and Wandsworth since it was established in 1978. For context, the fact that Westminster – home to HM the Queen, Fortnum and Mason and some of the most expensive real estate on the planet has turned Labour is rather like Donald Trump deciding he’s a progressive and moving to California to start a philanthropic fund for the advancement of feminism – it seems utterly impossible and yet here we are.  This is an earthquake for the Tories, and a big achievement for Labour, who didn’t even manage inroads like this under Tony Blair. 

Outside of London, the Tories have done poorly, but without the wipe-out seen in the capital. Nonetheless, they are down hundreds of seats, with the PM saying they had a “tough night”. Tory seats have also been lost in Scotland, with Labour potentially moving into second place behind the Scottish National Party.

Where does all this leave us? Labour will be glad that Johnson is hanging on to power as damaged goods, but they’d have wanted a more convincing result in their traditional heartlands. As Sky News are reporting, the results wouldn’t get Keir Starmer into Downing Street on his own if replicated at a general election, but they would be enough for Johnson to lose his majority.

All of this shows that simply relying on the Conservatives to keep making mistakes simply isn’t enough for Labour or the Liberal Democrats. To win, they must continue to professionalize their offering; they need to say exactly what they will do, rather than merely what they will oppose. They have to project their key people into the media, as it is clear that neither Starmer or the Lib Dem’s Ed Davey have the support of the public at large in the way Blair and Paddy Ashdown had in the run-up to 1997 – other voices must be heard. And once they have their policies in place, they must promote them in a positive and energetic way. For Johnson, he will just be glad that yesterday is over and will hope that it puts ‘party-gate’ to bed so that he can focus on loftier matters, such as the Ukraine war, for which he has scraped back some credibility domestically. But what we know about his personality is that whilst he has the charisma to get away with issues that would cause the downfall of almost anyone else, for Boris, the unexpected is always just around the corner. 

By Simon Benson

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