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UK Local Election Results Aren't so Troubling for the Tories

Boy, where to start? Last Thursday, thousands of volunteers and staff had a sleepless night, working until the early hours of the morning to verify and count the votes for the 2024 UK local elections. I know this because I was there.


And the headlines are that the Tories will also be having several sleepless nights after losing 474 councillors and losing control of 10 councils. Whilst Lord Ben Houchen held his mayoralty in Tees Valley, by far and large the biggest shock of the night was Andy Street losing his position as Mayor of the West Midlands to a political nobody from the Labour Party by a mere 1,508 votes.


I’ll get onto Andy Street later. But for now, the question on everybody’s lips is what does this mean for the Conservatives? With a general election imminent, is this local hammer blow really the disaster for the Tories that it’s being made out to be?


My answer is no, not really. Here’s why.


Look at the results. From almost 500 Conservative losses, Labour only gained 186 councillors – just over a third. So Keir Starmer’s brash claims that Conservative Prime Minister Rishi Sunak needs to call a general election immediately are premature. It’s not as if every Tory voter has suddenly defected to Labour – far from it.


In fact, the biggest proportionate gains were made by smaller parties. These local election results are not an endorsement for Labour and Starmer. They are a protest – mostly against the Conservatives, but also against Labour.


This is clear when you look at the gains for the Liberal Democrats – chiefly not a party people vote for, but a party people use as a vehicle to vote against other parties. The Lib Dems gained 104 councillors, taking their total to 522 – seven more than the Tories now have. But, whilst the Lib Dems perhaps took seats away from the Tories, voters equally did not want to give these seats to Labour.


Similarly, the Greens gained 74 councillors, bringing their total to a healthy 181. But, again, these gains are the result of voters’ dissatisfaction with the Tories. They are not the result of everybody flocking to Labour.


The 69% increase in Independent councillors is also telling. Voters are fed up with both parties. It is a case of pick your poison in the general election, but voters have the chance to go rogue in local elections and abandon both the major parties.


What I am trying to say here is that Conservative losses do not automatically equal Labour gains. And that is why predictions for a hung parliament are not so silly.


As I have said time and time again, Keir Starmer’s Labour are as uninspiring as watching paint dry. Starmer continues to spit feathers about Rwanda without explaining a better alternative to solve the UK’s illegal immigration woes.


He continues to support the railway strikes whilst proposing renationalisation as a solution – forgetting that, no matter who owns the Victorian railways, that infrastructure remains in dire need of investment which won’t change no matter who owns it.


And Starmer’s pernickety position on HMRC – proposing to spend £555 million on tax officers to stop tax avoidance – comes across as ridiculously expensive, boring nit-picking. Starmer isn’t the Mr Superman he thinks he is because he doesn’t have the skill to craft a hopeful narrative for voters. Instead, he’s more of a Mr Terms and Conditions Apply.


Make no mistake, Rishi Sunak is right to say the Conservatives have ‘work to do’. Hell, Rishi’s got a heck of a lot of work to do. But Labour aren’t off the hook either. Voters are not happy with either party – they are just more unhappy with one than the other. If Starmer does lead Labour to victory in the next general election, being the least unpopular party isn’t a strong foundation upon which to form a well-functioning government.


And this brings me back nicely to the drama that unfolded in the West Midlands.


Let’s be very clear. Andy Street has cast magic over the West Midlands since becoming its first Mayor in 2017. He has campaigned relentlessly to secure transport improvements, notably HS2. He has put on his business hat as a former CEO of John Lewis to channel significant economic investment into the region. And he even unveiled a £15 billion Tube-style West Midlands Metro by 2040 – enough to make you weak at the knees.


The guy’s credibility is unquestionable. Of all the incumbent Tory candidates fielded with the slogan of lots done, more to do, Andy Street is the one who epitomises it most.


And yet, West Midlanders appeared to put politics before prosperity – abandoning Andy Street in favour of Labour’s candidate. Please bear with me whilst I look up the name of this unknown yet very important man.


Richard Parker, that’s it. Basically, he’s an accountant who openly admits he has “never been a politician before”. This is a polite way of saying, ‘I never expected to get the job, but I’ve got it now so I’ll try my best’. How half-hearted.


So, this particular protest vote is almost worse for residents in the West Midlands than it is for the Conservatives. This is because those residents have lost a Mayor with an excellent proven track record – just because he dons the Tory blue – and have replaced him with a political randomer who will struggle to command authority on the slimmest of majorities based on pure protest.


So, what are we left with? Well, the local election results are not quite the lightning strike for Labour you’d think. People are unhappy with politicians full stop, so they are turning to anti-politics and independent candidates to demonstrate that.


Yes, the Conservatives have a lot of work to do if they are to retain credibility at the next general election. But winning a few councillors is by no means a victory lap for Labour. Voters aren’t choosing Labour, or the Tories – they’re choosing neither.

Image: Grace Rockya / Europinion

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