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Labour Marches Forward, But Sunak Feels Safe

Author Daniel Gilbert
Published 05 May 2023
Public Affairs and Policy

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There is no way for Rishi Sunak to sugar coat this. Counting is still underway, but Labour have already made gains across the country.

Local Elections Analysis

The Labour party has strengthened its position in its traditional north-east heartland of Sunderland; taken control of Stoke-on-Trent in the Midlands, where the Tories hold the Westminster seats; won bellwether Plymouth in the south west; and taken Medway in the south east, which has not been Labour since 1998. It’s the first big electoral test since last autumn’s prime ministerial turmoil, and the results are good for Labour. 

But look closely and there is some nuance. The relationship between local elections and national politics is rarely clear-cut. Theresa May lost more than 1,300 councillors in 2019 and was forced from office less than three months later. The Tory performance this time may not seem much better, but it follows an elaborate CCHQ expectation management exercise. Friends of the PM are already blaming the damage Johnson and Truss did to the party’s brand versus the stability Sunak now offers. CCHQ is clinging to a handful of results in Brexit-voting areas like Peterborough, Sandwell and Bassetlaw (all of which returned Labour MPs under Tony Blair) to make their case. “It’s not 1995”, they say. But pushing this line will be tough. One early analysis by Sky of 197 wards shows Labour making their biggest gains in pro-Brexit areas, while the Conservatives are making their big losses in areas that voted Remain. On this trend, Johnson’s 2021 electoral coalition would crumble. 

Friends of the PM are blaming the damage Johnson and Truss did to the party’s brand.

Third parties are also claiming some success. In early results, Lib Dems took control of Windsor & Maidenhead for the first time since 1997 and went neck-and-neck with the Conservatives in Brentwood - a worrying sign for the Conservatives in leafy southern shires. 

The silver lining for Sunak – and for businesses dreading any return to political instability – is there is no credible challenger with Johnson facing potentially damaging findings on Partygate at the end of this month. In the months ahead we’ll see more attempts by the PM to demonstrate his quiet competence and statesman qualities, with trips to Japan for the G7 and a US trip planned for early June.  Altogether, these results suggest a fairly predictable return to business in Westminster after the Coronation rather than an electoral shock that throws events off course. The results were priced-in. Their significance is largely about timing, as they fire the starting gun for the long general election campaign that will follow.  

In the Labour corner, Starmer’s authority remains unchallenged and he may feel he can wait a bit longer before reshuffling his frontbench. We hear his team is relaxed about not mirroring the Government’s latest departmental changes. A clear-out now sends the wrong signal so soon after an electoral success. But experience also says you shouldn’t wait too long else shadow ministers won’t get a proper apprenticeship in their briefs. 

Results suggest a fairly predictable return to business in Westminster after the Coronation.

The road to Westminster for Labour

What’s missing today are results from Scotland, Wales and London – key components in Labour’s route to power but where there were no elections this year. Taking control of Medway will grab headlines, but it will be harder for Labour to win Westminster seats there than in Scotland. Privately, Labour feel confident that 10-15 seats will go their way in Scotland, but they also know that the next tranche of seats north of the border are too marginal to call and will hinge on tactical voting.  

We won’t get the official take on national vote share until later today, but Starmer this morning has already claimed his party is on course for a majority. One seasoned activist we spoke to warned against such triumphalism and pointed to the challenges ahead. In Stoke, Labour took votes from Independents, raising questions about whether the party is genuinely winning round Tory voters or just benefiting from apathy. On policy, it was notable that Starmer chose to emphasise the importance of house-building at the last PMQs before the election. Greens across the country are campaigning loudly on an anti-housing ticket. It’s just one area where policy splits could hamstring the party on its road to power and complicate scenario-planning for business. 

Starmer has already claimed his party is on course for a majority.

Sunak is stable for now

The bottom line is this: Sunak is safe and there is no immediate risk of a return to last year’s political instability. The lingering question now is whether we are heading into hung parliament or Labour majority territory. We’re in the midst of a delicate pre-election dance: keeping in step with those still in power, while reaching out to their opponents waiting in the wings – and by that, we don’t just mean Labour. It’s also about the third parties that could hold the balance in a hung parliament to come. 

Elections took place in 230 English councils covering 8 million people, as well as mayoral elections in Bedford, Leicester, Mansfield and Middlesbrough. There were no elections in London, Scotland or Wales, so the picture is necessarily limited. The majority of councils only started counting on Friday morning. 

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