09 May 2022

Thursday saw two sets of elections – votes for local councils across Scotland, Wales and much of England, and potentially more significantly for the Northern Irish Assembly in Stormont where we saw results over the weekend.

The results of the local elections are being seen as an effective draw, with neither of the major parties able to claim they had a good night. The Conservatives did extremely poorly in London, losing three totemic councils in Wandsworth, Barnet and Westminster.  In total they shed a total of more than 400 seats, mostly across the South.

But across much of the North of England – including parts of the ‘red wall’ which will be vital to their chances at the next general election, the Conservatives have lost fewer seats than some anticipated.  The new Cumberland Council, including key seats such as Copeland went red.  But Labour’s vote share is projected to be roughly the same as when these councils were last contested in 2018, under Jeremy Corbyn.

The 2019 general election showed us that the voting coalitions for both Labour and the Conservatives were in flux. But these results show us that over two years later, both parties are still uncertain which groups of voters it needs to woo ahead of the next vote. Many Conservatives are deeply worried by losses in the home counties heartlands, fearing that seats which have been reliably blue for 50 years or more might slip away if this pattern is repeated at a general election. This has led to renewed mutterings about whether Boris Johnson is an electoral liability from MPs fearful about their own prospects.  New polling over the weekend illustrating the impact of the cost of living crisis is also causing concern: nearly 60% of voters say that they have stopped themselves spending money on something last week because they have less money than usual. This might contribute to politicians increasingly looking to industries including investment management to help voters who are feeling the pinch.

Labour strategists have much to worry about too. More than ever, the party appears to be appealing to university educated voters who see themselves as progressive. The party fears piling up votes in seats they already hold in the major cities, while making insufficiently large gains in the red wall.  Further headaches came on Friday, when Durham Police announced that they were investigating a lockdown curry attended by both Keir Starmer and deputy leader Angela Rayner. The outcome of this will not be known for some weeks, but it has immediately neutralized the party’s potential for attacks on Downing Street parties.

However there are two clear bright spots for Labour in this set of results. One is the success of Labour in Scotland, where they overtook the Conservatives and moved into second place. The results in Glasgow in particular are being read as potential signs that they will regain some ground here at the next General election.  The second is the Lib Dems’ success – the party is predicted to have picked up 19% of the vote. This is the party’s highest voteshare since the early days of the Coalition, leading to wins in their traditional heartlands including Somerset and Richmond.

The Lib Dems’ success is potentially helpful for Labour. By taking votes from the Conservatives, it raises the possibility of a hung parliament in which the Lib Dems would almost certainly support Keir Starmer as Prime Minister.

The results in Northern Ireland are potentially more momentous. Sinn Fein became the largest party putting them in line to hold the post of First Minister, with the second place DUP becoming Deputy.  However over the weekend the DUP reiterated their position of refusing to join the Executive with Sinn Fein until the Northern Ireland Protocol is scrapped.  Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis will now meet the main party leaders to encourage them to restore the devolved institutions and agree a new Executive, and if no power-sharing deal is reached within 24 weeks Northern Ireland will have to vote again.

One Westminster response to this is likely to be a Brexit Freedoms Bill, which is due to be announced in tomorrow’s Queen’s Speech. This is long expected, but may now include options to soften the working of the protocol. This has garnered an immediate reaction from Brussels, with Maroš Šefčovič calling on the UK to ‘dial down the rhetoric’ and ‘be honest about the deal they signed’.

This will be another busy week in Westminster, with the Queen’s Speech taking place tomorrow. The IA will keep you up to date with key developments.