Winning Narratives: Local Elections 2021

Winning Narratives: Local Elections 2021

May 2021 | Politics

The Conservatives trounced Labour in the recent local elections, or did they? A close examination of the results reveals a more complex picture.

In politics, the narrative is often more important than the facts. Donald Trump has made a career out of this maxim. Boris Johnson has often benefited from this too, using skills and connections developed as a journalist to set the media agenda in ways that advance his interests. Last week's local elections were no exception.

The conventional narrative is that the Conservatives and Greens made sweeping gains across England at the expense of Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Then Sir Keir Starmer followed up this disaster with a botched shadow cabinet reshuffle that destroyed any semblance of authority at Westminster. Not all of these things are actually true.

Early Gains

As always, the media agenda was set by the early results. Friday was a good day for the Conservatives. The massive Tory victory in the Hartlepool by-election made the headlines. At the same time, Labour lost several hundred local council seats in the midlands and the north. Never mind that the swing in Hartlepool mostly came from the Brexit Party, rather than voters switching between the main parties.

As the weekend progressed, a subtly different picture emerged. Late declaring councils in southern England shifted in the opposite direction. Labour still lost seats in the south, but so too did the Conservatives. The real winners there were the Greens and the Liberal Democrats. The Lib Dems even gained control of St Albans. The fact the Conservatives lost 3 southern councils to no overall control was overshadowed by spectacular gains in Cornwall and County Durham.

Big Prizes

By that point, the media narrative had moved on to more meaningful elections in Scotland and Wales. Labour surprised everyone by making gains in the Welsh Parliament, taking Rhondda from Plaid Cymru. The Conservatives were supposed to be the sole beneficiaries of the collapse in the former UKIP vote. Instead, it split pretty evenly between the two main parties, although the Conservatives gained far more in terms of seats. The end result is four more years of minority Labour government under a strengthened Mark Drakeford. That contrasts with pre-election talk about Labour possibly losing their status as the largest party.

In Scotland, results were more predictable. The SNP made gains but fell short of a majority. Labour lost seats, and so did the Lib Dems. Alex Salmond was the main loser though. His new Alba party flopped badly, polling less than two percent, comprehensively killing any hope of a comeback for the former first minister in the process. On the upside, the Greens were the biggest gainers in the Scottish Parliament after adding two seats to their tally.

Indeed, the Greens were the only party to make advances in every part of the country. They gained seats in left wing areas throughout England, doubling the number of councillors who won compared to last time. They're now the joint largest party in Bristol after they gained 13 seats from Labour. That gives them a base to expand Westminster representation in future elections. In London, they beat the Lib Dems in both the Mayoral vote and the Greater London Assembly. Their subsequent boast to be the new third party across in the UK is wide of the mark, but it's definitely true in the capital.

Changing Places

It is in such urban areas that Labour saw their only gains, unseating Tory mayors in the West of England as well as in Peterborough and Cambridgeshire. But by that point it was too late. The Labour leader had cemented the narrative by sacking his popular deputy, Angela Rayner, from her role as national campaign coordinator. It subsequently emerged that she'd had precious little to do with the bad election results and Starmer was forced to compromise. Especially when Andy Burnham made a barely concealed leadership pitch after securing re-election as the Mayor of Greater Manchester.

A botched shadow cabinet reshuffle reinforced the damage. After fevered speculation about sweeping changes and a major delay in making the announcement, only 4 senior frontbenchers actually changed jobs. Rayner was given a powerful new position with multiple responsibilities, and Rachel Reeves was promoted to Shadow Chancellor. Reeves is an exceptionally well qualified pick with plenty of enemies on the left of the party. She replaces the equally well qualified but frequently invisible Annalise Dodds. The real winner of the past week though is Rayner, whose position has been strengthened.

The Big Question

With Boris Johnson threatening to remain in power for the next decade, Starmer has lost a lot of authority among the soft left of the party. He was chosen to win elections but looks unlikely to do that at the moment. Few people know what he stands for or what his policies are. He needs the much heralded policy review to report and fast. He has time to turn things around though. His position is under no immediate threat, but the damage may already be terminal.

Perhaps the biggest problem he faces is out of his control. Labour are no closer to winning the red wall than they were a year ago. Voting patterns are still based heavily on Brexit, where the Labour simply can't win. Last week's results reflect this. They're not Brexit enough for the north and not Remain enough for the south. As such, they need to find an alternative pitch. However, is a human rights lawyer from a North London constituency really the right person to break the Brexit dichotomy dividing British politics?

Written by Alan Chatfield