I couldn’t help seeing the robbers who broke into a shoe shop in Peru and stole 200 trainers that were all for the right foot as a metaphor for the Conservative party. Rishi Sunak was supposed to be the sensible centrist who would put the recklessness of Liz Truss and the irresponsibility of Boris Johnson behind him. Instead, he has pandered at every opportunity to the Tory right.
He promised to “stop the boats” while offering no credible plan to tackle illegal immigration or create safe, legal routes for genuine refugees. He appointed Suella Braverman as his home secretary and allowed her to blow the dogwhistle on grooming gangs. He talked tough on drugs, pledging to ban the sale of nitrous oxide, and waded into the culture war on trans rights.
Now, like the incompetent thieves who found themselves with a haul of shoes that they could not sell, the prime minister is paying the price at the polls, as the Tories lose support in the socially liberal “blue wall” while also haemorrhaging “red wall” voters who are struggling with the cost of living.
The local elections were a disaster for the Conservative party. It turned out that the dire warnings from cabinet ministers that the Tories might lose 1,000 councillors were less expectation management than prophecy.
Squeezed in a pincer between the opposition parties, the Conservatives are in trouble in the north and south of the country, losing Plymouth, Stoke-on-Trent and Medway to Labour and Windsor and Maidenhead to the Lib Dems. The Tories lost control of Brentwood in Essex and Tamworth in Staffordshire while Labour won the Middlesbrough mayoralty, with the Conservative candidate coming last, behind the independent.
And, in a sign that the political realignment brought about by Brexit may be going into reverse, Labour’s vote was up most in areas with fewest university graduates, while the Conservatives continue to do worst in the areas with most. The new Tory coalition, on which Johnson’s 2019 election victory was based, appears to be cracking under the pressure of reality.
On the morning media round, Greg Hands, the Conservative chairman, dutifully parroted the line that it was a “disappointing night” for his party following a “difficult year” for the Tories. “The country needs to see more progress,” he admitted. That’s a tough message to sell for a party that has been in power for 13 years.
Sunak had hoped to present himself as a break with the past and a fresh start after a chaotic 12 months, but the loss of so many council seats indicates that the voters are judging leader and party together. The prime minister may be more popular than his party, but when people feel poorer than they did in 2010, “time for a change” is a powerful narrative.
It is also clear, however, that Keir Starmer has not yet persuaded the electorate that Labour represents the change they want to see. Labour was beaten by the Liberal Democrats in Hull and failed to win an overall majority in Hartlepool, once represented in the House of Commons by Peter Mandelson, a defining figure in the Tony Blair era.
As the polling guru Professor John Curtice pointed out, Labour appears to be benefiting mainly from a fall in the Tory vote share rather than an increase in its own. “They might achieve winning an overall majority, not because of any great enthusiasm of the electorate for Labour but rather because the Conservatives are doing so badly,” he told the BBC. “The Conservative vote is well down on the December 2019 general election but Labour’s own share on average is still much what it was in December 2019. We have moved from a situation where a Labour situation that was regarded as disastrous in December 2019 no longer looks quite so bad because the Conservatives have fallen back so heavily.”
If Starmer wants to be sure of an overall majority at the next general election, he needs to present a much more compelling, positive message. The local election campaign was seen by the political parties as a giant testing ground in which to experiment with different approaches ahead of the national campaign, expected next year.
Labour strategists are convinced that the negative ads they used to target Sunak’s record were a success. They point out that, instead of following the Tory local election campaign “grid” in the run up to polling day, the political agenda was dominated for days by a row about whether the prime minister thought paedophiles should be jailed. Labour was, as one senior figure put it to me “holding the mic”. “The Tories wanted the discussion to be all about small boats and whether women can have a penis and we shifted it onto crime,” the source explained.
That may be true, but the local election results show that just holding the mic is not enough. You also have to have something to say. It is not enough to trash the other side’s record, the opposition has to present itself as a credible government-in-waiting.
If he wants to get to Number 10, Starmer now needs to set out a much more ambitious programme for public service reform that would make the country fairer and more productive. He has to show how he will shake up Britain’s schools to bring out the best in every child, and how he will challenge vested interests to improve the NHS.
He needs to demonstrate how he will dramatically boost housebuilding in this country and come up with a transformative offer on the early years that will make life easier for parents while also improving social mobility.
Labour has been timid in its proposals because it is nervous of looking reckless with the country’s finances. But that leaves it in danger of looking as if it understands the cost of everything and the value of nothing. It is no good just saying he wants to be as “radical as Blair” on public service reform, Starmer needs to illustrate that concept with concrete policies.
After this week, Labour has won the right to be heard. As the election nears, there will be a growing interest in its plans. If Starmer wants to harness the “time for a change” mood, he needs a more powerful pitch to the voters about how he would transform the country.