Make no mistake, Thursday’s election results were dreadful for Labour. Losing control of six councils including Durham, hundreds of councillors losing their seats whilst also getting thumped by the Tories in the Hartlepool by-election.
Governing parties aren’t normally expected to win by-elections previously held by the Opposition, especially governing parties that have been in power for 11 years, but this just goes to show that Labour’s existential crisis in its northern heartlands still hasn’t reached its nadir. The strange and ironic truth is that the Conservatives are articulating a message of change far better than the official Opposition.
Hope for Labour yet?
Yet away from the red wall in the north, a strange pattern is beginning to emerge. One that could give Labour hope, and the Conservatives sleepless nights.
Having grown up in Worthing on the Sussex coast, my upbringing was typical of millions of others whose home was a suburban, middle-class, south-eastern town. Worthing was a classic of the genre in that the Tory votes were weighed instead of counted. Conservatives dominated council elections and always returned Tory MPs with enormous majorities.
Yet on Thursday, Labour gained five seats in Worthing to take their total to an impressive 15, with the Conservatives only narrowly retaining control of the council by a single seat.
To be clear, Worthing is not like nearby Brighton – a cosmopolitan university city with a history of voting progressively. Nor is it Dartford, an historic bellweather town in the south that voted Labour during the Blair years. Worthing has no tradition of voting anything other than Conservative. But that is changing and other similar towns in the south are changing too.
The Tories retained control of Surrey County Council but lost 14 seats to opposition parties including four to Labour. The Conservatives also lost their controlling majority in Tunbridge Wells for the first time in 20 years.
This hardly fits in with the prevailing narrative that governing parties in the UK are enjoying an incumbency bounce from the vaccine roll-out so what’s going on and is it anything more than a slight anomaly?
A shifting population
The old cliché was that as people got older, had kids and bought houses they naturally got more conservative but perhaps this is not as true as it once was. As Londoners get priced out of the city it could be that they are making the same move to commuter towns as their predecessors, but this time they are taking their politics with them.
To return to Worthing, it could be that some of last week’s Labour voters are ex-Brightonites who want to retain their cultural identity of voting progressively but also desire a garden and are prepared to move 10 miles down the road to get it.
Politics is in flux, with voters willing to give different parties the benefit of the doubt at the polling booth. Added to that, we’ve already seen the power of cultural identity in influencing new Tory voters in the north who feel that Labour no longer speaks for them. But the same is also true of Labour voters in the south who are proud of their progressive values and who want to retain them, regardless of whether they live in a city or not.
Ten years ago, it would have been laughable to suggest that Tories would win in Sedgefield and Hartlepool. Is it so outlandish to think that Labour could be competitive in Woking and Basingstoke in the future?
It could be that we’re witnessing the Conservative Party expanding its electoral coalition beyond the traditional base. But it could also be that the Conservatives have just shifted themselves north, in which case it’s feasible that they could leave their southern flank exposed in the future.
The Labour Party faces enormous structural and existential challenges. It needs to be competitive in Scotland to have any hope of forming a majority government and win back its northern heartlands. It also needs to work out how to once again appeal to the different elements of its traditional electoral coalition of working-class trade unionists and liberal urbanites. And quite simply, it has to win more votes in new places.
But despite their recent success, the Conservatives also face substantial challenges. It has bet big on its appeal to new voters who are socially conservative but back increased spending on public services. Some voters in blue wall seats may find it easy to break the habit of a lifetime and back the Tories again, but others will soon reject them if there aren’t tangible improvements to their lives and in their communities over the next few years. And all this increased public spending will have to be paid for – if that’s through increased taxes, then that could alienate traditional Tories.
History suggests that the Conservative Party will survive and thrive. Other than 1995-2003, the Tories have been much more successful than Labour at adapting to win power. In the short and medium-term, the Conservatives are in an undoubtedly stronger position than Labour but in the long-term they face structural problems of their own.
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