Did the Local Elections give us something for everyone or not enough for
anyone? By James Frith
Boris Johnson is no longer the asset that he once was for the for the Tories, though don’t write him off yet. His luck and timing may yet still prove too much for Labour. Last week’s local election results don’t don Keir Starmer with a stardom destined for Number 10 though gains and a return to competition for the Labour Party is undoubtable progress considering the dire 2019 performance. The Lib Dems are finally through their penance for propping up Cameron’s coalition, gaining control of five very different councils across the country, including Brexit-supporting Hull and Rees-Mogg’s territory of Somerset just a few years since pressing to cancel the EU referendum result. The Greens and Independents enjoyed a good night as voters parked their hyper-local concerns with them as a temporary option – though one unlikely to qualify as a permanent residence come the General.
Yet the picture feels muddled; there is some definite local clarity but an overall sense that it’s too mixed to see how these results would convert at a General Election. Most significant however are the results in Northern Ireland, with Sinn Fein becoming NI's largest party under the deft but direct leadership of Michelle O’Neill, in what might be the largest democratic drumbeat keeping time on the island of Ireland’s movement toward unification and the break-up of the United Kingdom. This proves so much of what many warned Johnson’s premiership and Brexit would risk. The border in the Irish Sea: the failing protocols and Jonhson’s preference to rhyme with fiction not fact on the practical consequences of his government’s actions. Labour has an opportunity to steal support from the Conservative and Unionist Party if it makes a Blair-like effort to strike the right chord as an honest broker in the process to come for Northern Ireland.
However, a net gain of 114 Councillors for the Labour Party will not give comfort to those hoping Labour will return to government at the next opportunity to do so. Nor will the party’s Capital gains, though historic, to take totemic councils off the Tories in Wandsworth and Westminster. In the most marginal seat in England, that of Bury North, voters opted to keep things largely as they were albeit with an improved vote share for Labour. Testament to Keir Starmer’s finest form to date, his efforts to repair the damage to relations between the Labour Party and Britain’s Jewish community saw him rewarded with gains in Barnet and Bury South. North London and Greater Manchester Jews similarly expressed their acknowledgement of Starmer’s deep commitment to earning their support. He now needs to resolve the outstanding issues to address across the many other communities he seeks to inspire. And in this, he must speak with an instinct and unabashed confidence, to show more athleticism in his vision and proposition to the country as himself and with his Party. His declaration yesterday afternoon that he will resign if issued with a fixed penalty notice for Beergate shows he can do cute and calculating, albeit there are those arguing it took him too long to come to it. It’s a high risk strategy but speaks to a well of self-assurance and a welcome show of emotion.
These elections had more than an air of the end of a party about them. Hazy, perhaps, and with the impact of shame, controversy and sleeze playing their part in the results. Turnout was low – as low as 15% in Fallowfield – and just a third of all voters voting typically elsewhere. A flattened, exhausted electorate stayed away from the polls, with gains for the Apathy Party triumphant as polling day plans lay abandoned.
The incoming economic storm and the perceived lack of action from the Government to the real hardship so many are facing may yet confirm for the Tories that governments lose general elections, oppositions don’t win them and on this show, it’s hard to see many feeling they’ve won anything from such a muddle.
James Frith is Senior Counsel at Atticus Communications and former MP for Bury North. This article was also published in the Times Red Box.