England Local Elections: Rishi’s Rout, Starmer Surge?

Tactical Voting Hammers Tories, But Has Labour Done Enough?

Let’s begin with the facts: this was a bad night for the Conservatives and a good day for Labour.

While many results are still to come in, much of the media coverage so far has been about parties trying to set the narrative for the weekend ahead. There will be bloodletting in the media and behind the scenes, so political leaders want to try to set the terms of trade.

But the results are straightforwardly bad for the Conservatives. Voters are moving away from them in significant numbers across the country and across demographic groups. They have lost totemic, Brexity “red wall” areas like Stoke, and previously swing marginals like Plymouth, Medway and Tamworth. At the same time, they’re also retreating in their traditional “blue wall” heartlands where Lib Dems appear to be exceeding their own expectations in areas like Windsor, Maidenhead, and Brentwood. The Conservative Party has also lost Hertsmere Council — in the Deputy Prime Minister’s own seat — with Labour and Lib Dems launching the pincer movement we predicted in our preview note. At this early stage and projecting these initial results across the country, it feels like the voters are sending a very strong anti-Conservative message.

Conversely, Labour is doing well in a range of settings — and are winning in the places they need to win in the general election. The word from Labour head office is one of delight. Equally importantly, Lib Dems are picking up votes and councillors in places where Labour has never been strong. Voters are making strong, anti-Tory tactical decisions. The Greens are also on track to have a good night, though perhaps slightly down from 2019 which was their best-ever local elections performance.

Like the vidiprinter on a Saturday afternoon updating the football scores, we can see the direction of travel, but, to extend the football metaphor, we don’t yet know the state of the league table. Governments often have bad local election results — when these seats were last fought the Tories lost 1,300 councillors — only to bounce back at general elections. The key difference this time is Labour performing much more strongly too: Labour is bullish and talking openly about being “on course” for a majority at the general election.

The Conservatives only received 26% of the projected national share of the vote — comparable to the worst of the Major years. Nevertheless, some commentators have seized on the fact that Labour's vote share of 35% is broadly flat compared with last year's local elections and they say that for all the political chaos of the past year and difficult economic conditions, Starmer is struggling to build additional momentum. This will give Conservatives some hope that the next general election could still be competitive, especially if the economy improves.

But the results suggest Labour is winning in the kind of seats across England that it needs for a majority. And the scale of anti-Tory tactical voting means it can still win a majority without needing a 1997-style share of the overall vote. Labour will be confident that, as the only credible alternative government in waiting, they will squeeze some of the Lib Dem and Green vote share in a general election, while they also hope to pick up seats in Scotland at the expense of the bedraggled SNP.

Implications: What Comes Next?

The Prime Minister and his team are keen to let it be known that they are paying the price for the mistakes of previous prime ministers — the economic mess of Liz Truss and the box set drama of Boris Johnson — arguing “we have a party problem not a PM problem.” The PM will be sticking to delivering on his five priorities and his team doesn’t feel that it is right for him to be judged on them yet — not least because he has not had enough time to deliver and has had to spend time and political capital rebuilding trust following the Truss and Johnson administrations. This is why the PM has been slightly at a distance from these elections with no big national campaign launch and very little media activity.

What the results mean for Sunak’s premiership is still to be determined but we should expect that once the results have been fully digested the murmurings of discontent will only grow louder. Self-preservation will kick in for Conservative MPs looking at these results and the loss of their councillors. The grace period for the Prime Minister is coming to an end and more MPs will feel they can, and must, speak out against the Prime Minister if they feel it will help them to retain their seats. This Prime Minister continues to derive his authority from his MPs — rather than the electorate — so an empowered Parliamentary Party is both a management problem and a political worry for No.10.

The coming debate will, however, not just be about leadership; it will also be about fundamental Conservative policies. On housing policy, for example, there is a real debate on which way the Conservatives now go. Some MPs think that these defeats are the result of not building enough new houses; others think it is because they are building too many. There are a growing number of MPs who will be calling for the party to get back to a low-tax pro-growth agenda and a return to “traditional Conservative” values. There will be more pressure to drive cost of living and tax cutting measures harder. More and more MPs are looking for political renewal, not just Government by management.

The question facing No.10 is this: Do you continue Government by management, rebuilding credibility and clearing up the mess, or do you throw some red meat to the Tory base and make a big retail offer earlier than planned? What’s clear is that the politics of the next 12 months will almost certainly change after these results.

Key Results

  • Plymouth (Labour gain) — Contains two marginal seats held by Tory MPs, including Cabinet Minister Jonny Mercer. Today it recorded a significant shift with Labour winning an overall majority, and the Conservatives losing every seat they stood in. The best result for Labour in Plymouth since 1995.
  • Medway (Labour gain) and Dover (Labour gain) — Labour swept through Kent and the Medway seats in its 1997 landslide but had been driven out of the county in recent years. These seats voted strongly to “Leave” during the EU referendum, so this is a significant indication that Brexit voters are returning to Labour.
  • Stoke-on-Trent (Labour gain) — Stoke has become emblematic of the Brexit-voting “Red Wall” for many. Like the Kent results, Labour will see it as a sign that they can win back seats they thought had turned against them for the long-term.
  • Hertsmere (Conservative loss) — The Conservatives lost 13 seats in Oliver Dowden’s own constituency. The Deputy Prime Minister will be nervous about what this means for the previously “ultra-safe” Tory heartland in the general election.
  • Tamworth (Conservative loss) — A strong performance from Labour in this prosperous midlands seat, gaining seats it hasn’t won since the 1990s. Tamworth elected Conservative MP Chris Pincher with a strong majority at every election since 2010. Amid controversy and today’s local election result, a similar Tory victory looks unlikely for 2024.
  • Windsor and Maidenhead (Lib Dem gain) — The Lib Dem strategy to target key blue wall targets has paid off in this traditional Tory stronghold that includes Theresa May’s constituency.
  • Walsall (Conservative hold) — A surprise hold for the Tories in this midlands town that will make Labour pause for thought.
  • Swindon (Labour gain) — A significant win for Labour in this bellwether town with two marginal seats both held by Conservative MPs where Keir Starmer launched his party’s local election campaign.