The so-called “Super Thursday” elections have confirmed deep divisions in Britain’s political map. They confirmed the Brexit schism, with places that voted to leave the European Union swinging strongly to the Conservatives and places that voted to remain swinging against the Tories. The division of Britain into three nations is also being reinforced as the SNP in Scotland storms to victory and Wales has backed a Welsh Labour Party that is increasingly independence-curious.
The elections also confirmed London as a place apart from provincial England, as the multicultural metropolis looks set to re-elect its Muslim Mayor with another comfortable majority (after the second-preference transfers). But in the Greater London Assembly, and in local elections elsewhere in England, the socially liberal left remains divided between Labour, the Liberal Democrats and Greens. They pay a heavy price for that division with an unforgiving first-past-the-post electoral system—just as they, and their second-referendum cause, did at the 2019 general election.
All of these gulfs have been confirmed, and—more than that—some are actually widening. The realignment associated with Brexit begins to look less like an event than a process.
The price of division
The cause of much of Labour’s woe can be seen in detailed English local election results collected by the BBC where the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats fielded candidates in both the previous election and this year. They show that the share of the vote for Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens is more evenly divided between these three parties than it was before.
In 402 wards fought in both 2016 and 2021, the average vote shares for those parties last time was 40 per cent, 15 per cent and 7 per cent respectively; now it is 37 per cent, 15 per cent and 10 per cent. In 364 wards (and county electoral divisions) last fought in 2017, the shares of the vote for those parties then was 20 per cent, 20 per cent and 6 per cent, and now is 21 per cent, 19 per cent and 11 per cent.
At one level, this might sound like good news for the progressives. Against the (pre-referendum) 2016 baseline, the collective share of the vote for the three socially liberal parties held steady, and on the 2017 baseline it went appreciably up. And this is despite the fact that these English wards were, considered overall, pro-Brexit territory, with an estimated average Leave vote of 54 per cent across all the wards together.
But while their collective share of the vote went up, that larger total is more splintered than before. This is partly because of increased numbers of Green candidates, but mainly because of the more general success of the Greens, who have—as I write on Saturday lunchtime—increased their number of councillors by 54. Overall, though, the progressive parties might look at this set of results and see a strengthening self-interest in electoral reform.
On the other side of the spectrum, the Conservative performance is increasingly divided between Leaveland and Remainia. In 473 of the wards with results collected by the BBC where the Conservatives fielded candidates in 2016, the last round of locals in 2019 and also this time, there has been an increasing correlation between the Conservative performance and the estimated ward-level Leave vote.
In these places at those (pre-referendum) 2016 local elections, David Cameron’s Conservatives did 3 points better on average in the wards that went on to vote Remain than they did in those that voted Leave. By 2019, with Theresa May’s Tories,there was a 2-point gap in the other direction. This week, the Conservatives did fully 8 points better in the Leave-voting wards than the ones that voted Remain. The so-called “Brexit realignment” of British politics seems to have strengthened, not weakened, now Brexit is “done.”
One issue, two Scotlands
Sometimes division makes for strange bedfellows. Scotland this week was asked to re-elect an SNP administration pushing for a second referendum on independence. Opposition to that referendum was a dominant refrain in the campaigns of the pro-union parties which in previous Scottish elections have shown very little solidarity.
For instance, at the 2015 general election on more or less exactly half the total ballot, the SNP won 56 of the 59 seats in Scotland; their fractured unionist opponents were left with just one apiece. Under the rubble of that landslide, it may not have been obvious that the SNP were vulnerable to tactical coordination by pro-union parties, of which there was then no sign. But in fact, in that year the Nationalists only enjoyed an unbeatable outright majority in 21 of their seats.
By contrast, this week there seems to have been strong tactical coordination to save constituency seats defended by pro-union parties. From the results so far, the Conservatives are up 2 and Labour down 7 points on average in the five seats that the Tories were defending. By contrast, the Conservatives were down 8 and Labour up 5 points across the three declared seats Labour won in 2016.
This suggests an extraordinary rate of new tactical voting from one election to another, even compared with the anti-Conservative tactical voting of the 1990s which eliminated the Scottish Tories at Westminster. On that occasion, the tactical voting was between Labour and Liberal Democrat supporters who then, together with their leaders Tony Blair and Paddy Ashdown, rather liked each other’s parties. That’s not so for Scottish Labour and the Scottish Conservatives, but their supporters now seem to be strongly motivated to stop the SNP getting a majority.
Whether the SNP will succeed remains to be seen, but it is clear that Scotland as a whole has been animated by the contest between the two sides of the independence divide. Turnout is up on average by 10 points in the 49 constituencies with results so far.
Devolving power means permitting different parts of the country to go their own way—which creates the potential for even more political divisions. We are seeing that in Scotland and Wales where incumbent administrations, with very different complexions to that in Westminster, have been re-elected on increased vote shares.
But we are seeing it, too, in the extraordinary collection of elections to town halls, metro mayoralties and police and crime commissioner posts. Thus the administrations of various metro mayors were re-elected despite national trends that might have undone them.
After the results kicked off with a spectacular outcome in the Hartlepool by-election, the media narrative for these elections has focused on Labour’s losses. But that simplistic story ignores their success in London and, remarkably, even in Leave-voting Wales.
The outcomes of these elections could be more about rewarding success than punishing parties which are perceived—in the ubiquitous phrase—as “taking voters for granted.” Opinion polls show that the Scottish and Welsh governments are thought to have done a good job of handling the Covid-19 pandemic. The Conservatives’ success, both in winning seats and achieving an unusually high Projected National Share (PNS) for a governing party, is likely to be in large part due to the success of the vaccine programme and rising optimism as the economy unlocks.
The London mayor, by contrast, was expected to steer the city through the crisis but without the powers or budget to do so. While Nicola Sturgeon and Mark Drakeford have increased their parties’ share of the constituency vote by 1 point (so far) and 5 points respectively, Sadiq Khan’s share of the first-preference vote in London is down 4 points in the half of constituencies so far declared.
Khan’s difficult negotiations over emergency funds for Transport for London might have something to do with this—and hold a salutary lesson for politicians in other parts of the country. Peter Mandelson has suggested that voters in Hartlepool saw the town’s financial interests as better served by having a Conservative MP—that reading suggests a very political dimension to the much-vaunted economic agenda of “levelling up.” And indeed, professor Chris Hanretty’s analysis of the distribution of money under the Town Deals scheme shows that Conservative marginals, which are mainly in Labour’s old “red wall,” were more likely to be selected for financial support.
Many voters in the north east also cited the success of Tees Valley Conservative Mayor Ben Houchen in securing funds for projects as a reason to support the Tories. Houchen was re-elected this week with a massive 33-point increase in his vote share. The success of the Conservatives in the north east is partly related to their support for Brexit, but it might also have been somewhat transactional.