Local elections 2024: Rishi Sunak has done nothing to revive his party’s fortunes

In Blackpool South, the Tories achieved their lowest vote share for 100 years in a seat they were defending

May 03, 2024
Keir Starmer celebrating Labour’s Blackpool byelection win. Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo
Keir Starmer celebrating Labour’s Blackpool byelection win. Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

There is no way the Conservatives can sugarcoat the results so far from yesterday’s elections. They are awful.

In Blackpool South, Labour yet again captured a previously Tory seat with a swing of more than 20 per cent. It’s the fifth time this has happened in the past 12 months. The Conservative share of the vote, 17.5 per cent, is its lowest for at least 100 years in a seat they were defending, replacing Dudley West (18.7 per cent in 1994) as the occupant of this undesirable pedestal.

Most local election results are yet to come; but on the overnight figures, the Conservatives are on course to lose half their seats, matching their worst fears. They did badly last year; it looks as if they have done even worse this year.

All this confirms the message from the polls: Rishi Sunak has done nothing so far to revive his party’s fortunes. But looking at the overnight results, the story that emerges is of the Tories having trouble on three fronts.

First, and most obviously, Labour is making big gains, not just in Blackpool South but in districts where they hope to eject Tory MPs at the general election. They include Plymouth, Redditch, Thurrock, Hartlepool and North East Lincolnshire (the area around Grimsby). Labour also made gains in Harlow, though it just fell short of winning outright. Capturing Rushmoor was remarkable. This part of Hampshire is full of normally safe Tory seats such as Aldershot. Labour is advancing beyond the normal battlegrounds.

Moreover, Sky News analysis shows that the swing to Labour was greatest in the most pro-Brexit areas (13 per cent since 2021, where more than 55 per cent had voted Leave in 2016), and smallest in the most Remain areas (8 per cent where Remain won more than 55 per cent). We are witnessing the collapse of the coalition of voters that caused Labour’s red wall to crumble and give Boris Johnson his 80-seat majority. Labour seems to be recovering most in precisely the areas it needs to do best.

Secondly, the Liberal Democrats are still threatening the Conservatives, despite not doing as well as they hoped. Their overall share of the vote is slightly down, but the early indications are that they are maintaining their support in their target areas such as Winchester. At this stage, however, this is a tentative judgement as we have yet to hear from most of the districts where the contest is essentially Tory versus Lib Dem.

Third, the impact of Reform. This is clearer. It came close to overtaking the Conservatives in Blackpool South. Its 16.9 per cent share of the vote was its highest in any byelection in the current parliament. This did not deprive the Tories of victory. Labour’s Chris Webb would still have won the seat comfortably: his 10,825 votes were 4,506 more than the combined votes of the Tory and Reform candidates. But Reform’s intervention greatly increased Labour’s majority and made sure that the Conservative paltry vote entered the record books. 

Nor is this an isolated example of Reform damaging the Conservatives. In the council wards where they fielded candidates, BBC analysis shows the Conservative vote fell by 20 percentage points compared with 2021—almost double the fall in Tory support where Reform did not stand. In contrast, Labour gained much the same amount of ground, regardless of whether Reform took part. This confirms polls that show Reform taking its support overwhelmingly from the Tories, unlike Ukip a decade ago, which attracted votes across the board.

This means that the Conservatives must squeeze Reform’s support if they are to avoid a catastrophic landslide defeat at the general election. In 2015, Ukip lost a large part of the votes it had won in byelections, and its poll rating slipped as the election approached. Without such a squeeze this time, Conservative prospects are truly dreadful.

However, Reform itself is unlikely to benefit if it does avoid a squeeze. Ukip won 13 per cent in 2015 and won no new seats. The same total vote for Reform this year would probably have the same outcome. Its support is too evenly spread. In contrast, the Lib Dems are likely to win quite a few seats through tactical anti-Tory voting. This could mean that Reform could win getting on for four million votes and end up with no seats, while the Lib Dems could win just three million votes and send 30 or more MPs to Westminster.

The Conservative response to all this is to talk up Ben Houchen’s victory as Conservative mayor of Tees Valley and talk of little else. True, this is essentially a Labour area. But is also true that Houchen’s share of the vote was down almost 20 points. More important than Tees Valley have been the results later on Friday afternoon in two other mayoral contests: the East Midlands and York & North Yorkshire. The Conservatives led comfortably in both areas in 2019—and both went decisively Labour this week.

This week both have elected mayors for the first time. This means there is no incumbent effect to move the electoral dial. The fact that both swung strongly to Labour—indeed, massively in York & North Yorkshire, where 27 per cent Tory support was half the 54 per cent it achieved in 2019—offers a better guide than Tees Valley to the shift to Labour across much of England. 

This article was updated to include newer results