Laura McAllister looks at the political climate across the border.
England has gone all European.For the past eighteen months, the politics of 53 million people has been overshadowed by momentous political shifts in Scotland that have seen the widespread embrace of the political sentiments of independence, if not all of its substance. And the momentum of the SNP shows no sign of slipping. It holds 56 of the 59 Scottish seats at Westminster and looks likely to increase its governing majority in the Scottish Parliament-although, this time the PR system will militate against a complete clean sweep for the SNP in Holyrood.
But, since the turn of the year, English conversations about politics have switched from cursing those pesky Scots for their independence aspirations and pushing ahead with EVEL (English votes for English Laws), to an overwhelming focus on the EU, and England and the UK’s place in it (and they could well be different).
Interestingly and unusually this year, elections in Wales are likely to have a bigger impact on the wider political landscape than those in England, reflective both of the future powers of the Assembly and also it exemplifying some wider, high-profile questions such as “Can UKIP make a breakthrough? Can Labour stem further losses? Can the Lib Dems survive in what were once heartland areas?”. All of this has meant that local elections in England where, after all, 83% of the UK’s population live, have had even less attention than usual.
But these elections are important ones for England – in their own right, but also because they will tell us much about the new complexion of UK politics and specifically, how the parties are faring a year on from the General Election. If Labour gets towards 40% of the vote, which should translate into about 200 extra councillors, that should be sufficient for pundits to acknowledge that some progress, at least, has been made towards the goal of winning the 2020 General Election. Such an outcome should also be enough to silence those in the party who want to change leader. For Labour, so much is about the still newish Jeremy Corbyn and delving for evidence as to whether he can boost his party’s electoral dividend, or confirm the views of many commentators that a move to the left will ghettoize the party in a comfort zone where activists will convince each other that the party is on course for victory based on Twitter conversations. What then does Labour need to do, to show that Corbyn has indeed connected with a zeitgeist of opinion wider than its 2015 support, without, at the same time, alienating many previous supporters? The obvious answer is that Labour must gain seats and councils. Ok, we are not yet into the classic mid-term when most Governments lose popularity, but the Conservatives are visibly and publicly split over Europe and have grappled with, if not always taken, some unpopular policy decisions-the recent row over disability benefits being a case in point.
However, recent electoral history suggests caution. When these local seats were fought in 2012, Ed Miliband’s Labour Party made 800 gains and won 39% of the vote, yet went on to lose dreadfully in the General Election last year. Worse precedents from local authority by-elections since January 2016 suggest that even this level of support might be hard to replicate and that Labour might fall to under a third of the vote and actually lose up to 200 seats. Even worse still, there is another perspective that suggests that even this kind of performance underplays the depth of Labour’s problems. Unlike the early 1980s, when the left last controlled the party leadership, much of the local councillor base is to the right of Corbyn and John McDonnell, and thus to some extent, insulated from negative attitudes towards them. This means that Labour local triumphs are more likely to reflect the more moderate and business-friendly agendas of council leaders, for example in cities such as Liverpool and Manchester, rather than the agendas of the national leadership. Local results might well understate the problems facing Labour at national level and so potentially produce misleadingly positive signals for the party’s prospects. For example, in several places the gain of one or a few councillors could give the party overall control. Thus, a handful of gains and the party would take control in places like Kirklees, Plymouth, Newcastle-upon-Lyme, Calderdale, Walsall, Worcester and Amber Valley. Good news and easy to spin as a triumph, but potentially misleading as a guide to 2020.
Labour should, at least, have some good news in the contest for the London mayor, where Sadiq Khan should (on the basis of consistent poll leads) beat the Conservative candidate, Zac Goldsmith. But although good for Labour in London and the party’s wider morale, even the party spin doctors would have to dig deep to convince anyone that this is a predictive of a new dawn. Without Boris, London is increasingly a natural Labour city. The party performed very well there in the General Election. The city has progressively become politically detached from the South East (and the rest of England for that matter) particularly in terms of resilience to the UKIP surge evident in many of the less affluent surrounding areas, largely due to its established multicultural citizen base and a cosmopolitan liberalism common to the world’s greatest cities. This means that, despite the mayor being a substantial prize in its own right, a narrow Khan victory, say 53–47% over Zac Goldsmith, would be very little cause for celebration.
The Conservative enter the contests with reasonably good prospects. Even a defence of its 2012 position might be presented to imply confidence for the next election outcome. In reality, the Conservative PR machine is likely to have better material to work with, the probability that Labour will fail to match its 2012 performance means that the Tories can expect- at minimum- modest gains, perhaps taking councils such as Southend, Southampton, Crawley or Harlow. To poll within the 36% to 38% bracket would be judged a good result. Retaining the London mayoralty would be excellent, although it is more likely that Conservative Central Office is planning how to minimize the hit of defeat there.
Conservative success or otherwise also depends on public attitudes towards the Liberal Democrats. The influx of new members amidst the spirit of Lib Dem Fightback and a few good local by-election results in 2016 provide some encouragement that their nadir of unpopularity has passed. However, mostly stagnant national opinion poll ratings encourage a more pessimistic sense of caution. Perhaps the most likely outcome is a very modest advance, with few implications for the other parties. Such a scenario has been predicted by local election gurus, Rallings and Thrasher, who estimate a 16% vote share, equating to a handful of gains. Still, it should be remembered that these elections are primarily urban contests and many of the old Liberal heartlands aren’t up for grabs, so not do not present a hugely reliable way to judge any recovery. Ultimately for the Liberal Democrats, these elections are more about highlighting the towns and cities in which the party has started to rejuvenate its tradition of community activism.
For UKIP, the forthcoming contests in England offer the prospects of some gains. It started its climb towards its current total of approximately 500 councillors in 2013, and so has considerable scope to improve on the seven councillors it won when these seats were last fought in 2012. Encouragement can also be taken from opinion poll ratings that have stabilised reasonably close to UKIP’s General Election performance. Furthermore, Corbyn, and particularly Labour’s, approach to the public’s concerns over immigration offer UKIP a prospect of advances in the urban north-a similar trend to that seen in Wales which promises to furnish UKIP with a small group of AMs. However, the proximity of the EU referendum must raise questions as to where the party’s campaigning energy will be deployed and expended.
Finally, for the Green Party these elections offer modest prospects for gains, given there are no contests in some of its key areas of strength, such as Brighton. Elsewhere, its challenge is to defend existing strongholds in, for example, Bristol and Norwich.
So, local contests in England are important both in terms of who runs local services, but also for how the results might be interpreted for the wider UK political scene. One thing of which we can be sure is that the extrapolations, predictions and ‘conclusions’ will inevitably reflect the agendas of who is spinning them. The results in London and in England more widely will show that “Corbyn can’t win…. Farage is a liability and must go…. the Liberal Democrats are doomed… the Conservatives have lost touch mid-term or only Boris can appeal beyond the normal core Tory support etc. etc.” Take it all with a pinch of salt, but England really does matter in this election scenario, not least because we have a public opinion sample across the UK which might allow us to better judge how the component nations are presently diverging from, or coalescing to, established norms.