Inside Story

King, country and the Conservatives

Local election defeats across England make it a better day to be a monarch than a prime minister

Peter Kellner London 6 May 2023 1273 words

Labour leader Keir Starmer speaks to supporters celebrating on Chatham Pier yesterday after Thursday’s local council elections. Chris J. Ratcliffe/Getty Images

Future historians may identify 6 May 2023 as the day when Britain’s monarchy rediscovered its mojo and the Conservatives lost theirs. When King Charles decided it would be the day of his coronation, he would not have known that his prime minister, Rishi Sunak, wouldn’t be in a mood to celebrate, for the Conservatives would be nursing a giant electoral hangover. And, to extend the comparison between Crown and government, the basic reason for the stark contrast is that while few Britons are eager to replace the monarchy most are only too eager to kick the Tories out of office.

The elections for local councils didn’t cover the whole of Britain. There were no contests in London, Wales or Scotland. But the elections were sufficiently widespread for a clear picture to emerge of the country’s mood six months after Sunak became PM and tried to steady a ship of state that had almost run aground under his two predecessors, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss. The picture is of the Conservatives heading for defeat at the next general election, likely to be held late next year.

The results showed something else too. Britain’s anti-Conservative majority is divided. Smart targeting by Labour and the Liberal Democrats, and tactical voting by savvy citizens can help to overcome this; but it remains touch-and-go whether the next general election will produce a clear Labour victory or a hung parliament, a minority Labour government and a second election within a year or so.

Australian readers will recognise the issue — and, for progressive voters, the solution. If Britain replaced its age-old first-past-the-post system with Australia’s preferential system, the Conservatives would be heading for opposition with no early chance or reprieve.

Let’s fill the picture in. More than 8000 councillors were elected on Thursday. The Conservatives, defending 3500 seats, lost more than 1000. But the gains were spread around the Tories’ opponents: Labour gained 500 in round numbers, the Liberal Democrats 400, the Greens 250.

In a general election, fragmentation would be less. Right now, the Greens have only one member of Britain’s 650-seat parliament; at the most they might gain one or two extra next year. More likely is that they will win a million-plus votes in seats that they will come nowhere near winning. In closely fought seats between the Conservatives and Labour, or between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, these Greens votes could save a Tory from defeat, by denying the local Labour or Lib Dem challenger the few extra votes they need to win.

Britain’s parties, and some but not all voters, understand this. On Thursday, tactical voting was widespread. That is, many Labour supporters were happy to vote Lib Dem where this was the best way to defeat the Conservatives locally — and Lib Dem supporters returned the compliment in tight Conservative–Labour contests. In a way, many British voters applied the principle of preferential voting to a first-past-the-post electoral system.

But many didn’t — and many would stick to their preferred progressive party in a general election even if this meant local victory for the Conservatives. To the extent that this happens, the Tories will continue to reap the benefit of having a near monopoly of the right-of-centre vote, while the left-of-centre vote continues to be divided.

To this we must add a further complicating factor. Half a century ago, Britain’s elections were essentially simple. Blue-collar manual workers voted Labour, while white-collar office workers and professionals voted Conservative. Not everyone, of course: politics is never that simple. But it was a pretty good approximation of Britain’s electorate. As in much of the industrialised world, all that has changed. Economies have changed, education has changed, jobs have changed — and party loyalties have changed.

Social class is no longer an indicator of how Britons vote. Age and education now matter more than anything else. Voters under thirty with a degree seldom vote Conservative these days. People over sixty who left school at sixteen seldom vote anything else.

The 2016 Brexit referendum, when Britain voted to leave the European Union, accelerated this process. Many lifelong working-class Labour supporters voted for Brexit and then, in 2019, switched to Boris Johnson and the Conservatives to “get Brexit done” — that is, complete the withdrawal negotiations with the European Union. That, and the fact that Labour was led by Jeremy Corbyn, an uncompromising, lifelong and utterly unelectable enemy of capitalism, ensured the biggest Conservative victory in 2019 since Margaret Thatcher’s heyday back in the 1980s.

Labour turned to Keir Starmer as its leader — a decent, public-spirited man with strong progressive values but light on ideology. He has asserted his leadership by, among other things, expelling Corbyn from Labour’s parliamentary ranks, following evidence of Corbyn’s anti-Semitism (a charge, it must be said, that Corbyn rejects). Whatever else happens, the man who led Labour to catastrophic defeat at the last election won’t be able to stand as a candidate for the party at the next one.

But Starmer’s larger problem remains: how to reunite the two blocks of voters that have combined to give Labour its past election victories: manual workers on average and below-average incomes; and liberal-minded graduates committed to progressive reform. In the Brexit referendum, the former group voted strongly to leave the European Union, while the latter group voted even more strongly to remain.

These issues are part of a wider and deeper debate about the future of Britain and the social basis of political loyalties. But Labour doesn’t have the luxury of waiting five or ten years for this debate to be settled. It must decide before the next election where it stands on a range of issues, of which the trickiest is Britain’s relations with the European Union.

Most (though not all) people now agree that (a) Brexit was a mistake, and has been bad for Britain’s economy, but (b) there is no realistic prospect of rejoining the EU anytime soon. So what should Labour do? In particular, is there some way it can win back the keen Leavers who used to be such a large part of its electoral base, while holding on to the pro-European graduates who never wanted Brexit in the first place?

Starmer’s answer has been to be as vague and say as little as possible, beyond making nebulous promises of a more constructive relationship between London and Brussels. His hope is that pro-Brexit ex-Labour voters will be happy enough with this to return to their old political home, while the younger, radical graduates will be so determined to see the back of the Tories that they will hold their pro-European noses and vote Labour wherever this will help remove Tory MPs.

Which brings us back to Thursday’s results and the fragmentation of the anti-Conservative vote. Part of the reason for the gains made by the Liberal Democrats and Greens is that they are now more clearly pro-European than Labour. Maybe Starmer is right to believe that pro-Europe Britons will vote Labour where it matters in a general election. But not all of them will.

The warning for Labour from the local elections is that in just enough seats (and in the absence of preferential voting), just enough anti-Brexit anti-Tories will withhold their support from Labour to enable the Conservatives to retain a number of seats they would otherwise lose. This is why the Conservatives may not win the next election at all, but Labour may struggle to win it outright.

As newly crowned King and constitutional monarch, Charles III must be relieved that this issue is, to invert the old saying, below his pay grade. •