Written by Oliver Toms
The first set of elections since the 2019 General Election produced a disappointing result for Labour but not without its silver linings, yet further internal party conflict means those lessons will not be learned. Across England thousands of councillor positions were up for election, along with the Hartlepool by-election, 13 mayoral positions and 35 police and crime commissioners.
Hartlepool, part of the ‘Red Wall’, had been held by Labour in 2019 even though the Brexit party had split the pro-Brexit vote. The by-election was the first hint of whether the ‘Red Wall’ seats would return to Labour following the completion of Brexit, or whether there was a more permanent realignment in English politics. With the Conservative candidate winning the seat with 51.9% of the vote and a 16% swing from Labour to Conservatives, it seems that the alignment is indeed more permanent.
The police and crime commissioners showed a similarly dim picture for Labour, with the Conservatives winning in six areas with a labour incumbent with 21 forces declaring. At face value the local elections were also poor for Labour and good for the Conservatives, with Labour losing 317 councillors and 8 councils while the Conservatives gained 239 councillors and the control of 13 councils after 140 councils declared at the time of writing.
The Lib Dems, typically strong in local elections, had a remarkably stable result with a net gain of 3 councillors and gaining overall control of St. Albans council. The quiet victor of the elections was the Green Party, more than doubling their councillor count to 143 with an increase of 82.
Labour had more success with the mayoral positions up for election, winning the West of England and Cambridge & Peterborough mayors from the Conservatives, and the newly created West Yorkshire mayor. Incumbents Sadiq Khan and Andy Burnham won London and Manchester respectively. Meanwhile, the Hartlepool result triggered public infighting between Labour MPs with Diane Abbott, a strong ally of Corbyn, tweeting that “Kier must think again about his strategy”. Steve Reed, shadow communities and local government secretary and Starmer ally, said that: “what [the people] don’t yet understand is Labour is different from the Labour that they comprehensively rejected in December 2019.”
While the results that came in on Saturday were slightly better for Labour, it was announced that Anegla Rayner, deputy leader of Labour party, was to be removed from her post as Party Chair in response to the result. A Labour party source said that “Keir said he was taking full responsibility for the result of the elections – and he said we need to change.
“That means change how we run our campaigns in the future. Angela will continue to play a senior role in Keir’s team.”
The decision was met with near universal disgust from MPs and party members alike. Former shadow chancellor John McDonnell accused Starmer of a “cowardly avoidance of responsibility” and that Starmer was “scapegoating everyone apart from himself”. Andy Burnham tweeted that he “cannot support this” and Clive Lewis, a Labour MP who has called for better collaboration between left and liberal parties simply tweeted “mess”. By falling into internal strife, Starmer and the rest of the Labour party risk not looking at the wider patterns of the election, and even for the Conservatives there was some bad news in the election.
Many Red wall seats that fell during the 2019 election also saw more Conservative councillors being elected at the expense of Labour, and in some cases Lib Dem councillors. The leading is example is Durham, where the Conservatives gained 14 councillors and Labour lost control of the council for the first time in 100 years. Outside of Manchester and Liverpool, there were Conservative gains across the North and the collapsed UKIP vote went disproportionately to the Conservatives as well.
Across all the elections, English, Scottish and Welsh, there was a significant boost for the current governing party, the so called ‘Vaccine Boost’. This is certainly unusual for local elections, which the governing party traditionally does poorly in. While it is difficult to attain the true extent of the incumbency bonus, it was certainly there and is incredibly unlikely to continue into the 2024 general election. Although, while the combined effects of a ‘Vaccine Boost’ and the UKIP vote collapsing led to gains for the Conservatives in the North of England, it also prevented disaster in the “Blue Wall”, the Conservative heartlands of the South and Home counties.
The Lib Dems were able to make gains across the area, notably five councillors in St Albans to give themselves control of the council and gained 8 councillors in Oxfordshire from the Conservatives. Several other councils saw the Conservatives bleed seats to the Lib Dems. Lib Dem Deputy leader and St Albans MP Daisy Cooper said: “The Tory Blue Wall has started crumbling in this election as the Liberal Democrats move forward in Tory former heartlands.
“The age of no-go areas for the Liberal Democrats in traditionally Tory southern cities, towns and villages is over.”
Labour was also able to make some minor in roads in these areas, picking up councillors in Canterbury and Falmouth. However, Labour also lost ground to the Greens across the board, but most acutely felt in Bristol, where they lost 13 seats to the Greens. In contrast, the North was mostly a story of Conservative success, with a repeat of 2019 voting patterns and the defunct UKIP vote falling to their favour. However, in the South the Conservatives showed signs of weakness, with the Lib Dems and the Greens chipping away.
The overall picture is that the realignment that was theorized in the wake of 2019 is evident once again in the 2021 local elections. Labour must not succumb to further internal conflicts and instead take on board the realignment and seek to exploit it. To do so requires collaborating with the Lib Dems and Greens who have already begun to chip away at the ‘Blue Wall’.