Elections 2016

The UK’s “Super Thursday” election results are mostly in, and they give as a fascinating picture

The UK’s “Super Thursday” election results are mostly in, and they give as a fascinating picture of the political situation across the country.

In Scotland, the SNP will continue in Government after winning 63 of 129 seats on the highest turnout (55%) for a devolved election there, yet lost their majority largely down to a strong performance by the Scottish Conservatives. The result was disaster for Scottish Labour, which was pushed into third place by Davidson’s resurgent Tories. In Wales, Labour lost votes, but lost only one seat (albeit a very painful defeat in Rhondda), while UKIP surged forward to claim seven AMs, largely by taking votes from Labour in the valleys. In England, the last results are still trickling in, Labour has lost a handful of seats and one council, while the Conservatives have also lost a handful, but sustained no net council losses. The London Mayoralty has yet to be announced, but ongoing results put Sadiq Khan ahead by about 44% to 35% on first preferences, making it highly likely that he will be declared the winner later this evening. Labour is also doing well in the London Assembly elections, taking marginal seats like Merton and Wandsworth from the Conservatives.

The overall picture painted by these results favours the Conservatives. They came into this election in parlous circumstances. The party is riven by the civil war over Europe, which has paralysed Cabinet decision-making. George Osborne’s Budget unravelled quickly, drawing opprobrium from across the political spectrum. The country’s most popular public service, the NHS, has been hit by the junior doctors’ strike, for which most of the public still blame the Government. Conservative MPs and councillors across the country were also up-in-arms over ministers’ plan to force the academisation of all schools in England. Last night showed that the damage was not fatal. Davidson staged a remarkable success in Scotland, suggesting that the Tories’ unswerving support for the Union (in contrast to Dugdale’s wobble) is a strong basis for their recovery. Their victories in the Borders constituencies indicate that the Conservatives could even add Scottish MPs at a General Election in 2020.

Indeed, Scotland provided the worst news of the night for Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. He argued that a more convincing left-wing, anti-austerity platform would bring Scottish voters back to Labour, and gained considerable support from that prospect. That prospect has not materialised. And if Scottish Labour cannot win back seats, Labour will have to perform extraordinarily well in England to win in 2020. Labour cannot take too much comfort from the SNP losing some of its magic, since they contributed little to the SNP’s loss of seats. A polarisation of Scottish politics between social democratic nationalism and conservative unionism is the worst possible result, leaving Scottish Labour stuck in the middle, struggling for a clear message.

In Wales, Labour also shed votes in former heartlands, but the nature of the challenge is more similar to the one the party faces in England. Concern about immigration and cultural change in South Wales drove voters to UKIP, just as the party is gaining votes in Yorkshire and the North-east in particular. Plaid Cymru’s shock in Rhondda seems unlikely to form a broader trend, whereas UKIP gains could indicate that the disconnection between the party and its supporters on big issues around identity and economics is deepening and widening. It does confirm that the biggest danger for the Remain campaign is not the split in the Conservative Party, but the probability that huge chunks of former Labour voters in post-industrial areas will vote Leave in June.

The English council results in a way run consistently with the Welsh results – bad for Labour, but not the cataclysm some predicted. Labour lost one Assembly seat in Wales, and looks set to lose only a handful of councillors. The reality, though for an Opposition Party, is that standing still is going backwards. Governments can afford voters to vent mid-term discontent and then return for a General Election, but an Opposition must harvest discontent at every opportunity if it means to win power. To put this in perspective, the official opposition had only lost seats in mid-term council elections twice in the last 34 years – in 1982 and 1985. Both times they were followed by Conservative landslides in General Elections. Labour MPs have identified another worrying trend that is reminiscent of the 1980s – piling up votes in already Labour-held areas while losing in key marginals. The West Midlands, home to many election-deciding seats, provides a case-in-point. Labour increased its majority on Birmingham City Council, which it already controls. It lost Dudley, an area it contests with the Conservatives, to no overall control. Even in places where Labour held on like Southampton, it relied on strong UKIP votes doing slightly more damage to the Tories. But the 2015 election suggests that when the choice is about who voters prefer as Prime Minister, these voters will drift back to the Conservative Party rather than a Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn.

The Mayoralty is the one blot on the Conservatives’ evening, but at that a largely self-inflicted wound. London leans Labour demographically, and the Labour Party outperformed its national average in 2015 in the capital. The Conservatives could easily have set the expectation that they would lose, particularly with the legion of motivated and well-organised Labour activists in London boosting inner city turnout. Instead, they chose to pursue an aggressive strategy targeting Sadiq Khan’s alleged links with extremists. That campaign does not appear to have worked, and early analysis (with all the health warnings those carry at this stage) indicates it may have alienated ethnic minority voters, with whom the Conservatives made valuable progress in 2015. CCHQ will have to take a hard look at why it decided the Mayoralty was worth risking a key element in its hold on national power.

The big takeaway of the evening, nonetheless is that the Conservatives dodged the punches a divided and warring party in government should expect, and that Jeremy Corbyn did just well enough to push aside any challenge to his leadership. And that is as good an evening as David Cameron and his party could expect. But the very weakness of the Labour Party will present the Prime Minister a big problem for the June referendum – he needs Labour votes to stay in the European Union and preserve his legacy and economic strategy. So at least for six weeks, ironically, he needs the Labour Party to improve its performance dramatically and save him from his own backbenchers.