In the aftermath of Labour’s 2021 local election wipe-out, in which Keir Starmer recorded the worst result for a new opposition leader in over 50 years, lots of narratives have emerged that attempt to downplay or put a positive spin on the disastrous results.
One of the most popular narratives is that, even though it inarguably went backwards in the North of England, Labour is moving forwards in the South and winning in ‘Blue Wall’ areas (‘Blue Wall’ being as undefined and vague a term as ‘Red Wall’, if not vaguer). This was driven by the over-the-top attention given to a handful of Labour gains in council wards in areas like Chipping Norton.
But when you look at all the local election results in May, Labour performed worse in the South than it did in the North – and even those areas where it did well (such as the two Mayoral elections) aren’t as impressive as they first appear.
Beyond Chipping Norton
One of the most widely retweeted election results in May was the result in the Oxfordshire ward of Chipping Norton, where Labour narrowly gain a long-time Conservative seat. Pro-Starmer and centrist commentators hailed this as the prelude to the collapse of the ‘Blue Wall’, a thesis which was given weight by the Conservatives’ astonishing defeat in the Chesham and Amersham by-election.
Yet I would argue that the excitement generated by the Chipping Norton result is misplaced. It tells us no more about the political landscape of Southern England than the result in Sewell ward does (where the Greens won for the first time since 2009). We can, however, learn from the overall result across Southern England.
In May 2021, 4.8 million voters cast a ballot in the South, with 2,400 councillors elected. Of these, the Conservatives won 1,333 (+15), the Lib Dems 413 (+15), Labour 365 (-88) and the Greens 98 (+55). Independent candidates, Residents’ Associations and smaller parties won the remaining 175 seats (+9).
These results may seem surprising. The popular narrative amongst many centrists is that Labour made significant gains in the South in May 2021, and that the Tories are collapsing. But as the results show, the already sizeable Tory vote held up, whilst Labour lost seats and is now in third place behind the Liberal Democrats. In other words, Labour has gone backwards in the South compared to its performance under Jeremy Corbyn.
Having said that, it’s inarguable that these gains by the Conservatives in the South were relatively small, especially compared to the 113 gains they made in the North and the 106 gains they made in the Midlands.
But Labour (-88) did not benefit from this Tory under-performance. Instead, Starmer’s party lost a higher percentage of their seats in the South than they did in the North – for instance, they lost 7% of their seats in the North West but lost 28% of their seats in the South West.
In terms of councils, Labour now has a majority on just 9 of the 73 Southern councils that were up for election in May – a net loss of three councils compared to the previous elections, whilst the Conservatives control 39 (+1). Labour gained absolutely no councils in the South in May 2021. Indeed, it barely has more than the Liberal Democrats.
Signs of hope?
The most positive results that Labour can point to in the South (outside of London) are the two Metro Mayoral elections held in the West of England and in Cambridgeshire. Labour won both, but their results in both were not necessarily as impressive as they first appear.
The West of England result was good: Labour won the most first preferences, with the Labour vote rising by 11pts compared to May 2017.
In addition to winning Bristol, the party won 32% (+17) in Bath & North East Somerset – an impressive showing for Starmer’s party, which won just 19% there in 2019 and holds no seats in the area.
Having said that, the West of England region has been trending towards Labour since the 2017 general election, as the graph below indicates.
So whilst the West of England Mayoral election was a positive result, the region has been trending towards Labour since the 2015 general election – the party lost it in 2015 by a 9pt margin, but won it by a 3pt margin in 2017. This trend was particularly clear in Bristol, where Labour won just 29% of the popular vote in the May 2017 mayoral election but went on to win 60% in the June 2017 general election (and 54% in 2019).
The same cannot be said of Cambridgeshire, however, which makes the result there even more interesting.
In the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough region, Labour’s candidate (Dr Nik Johnson) won the election – but he did not win the most first preferences. Instead, the Conservative candidate outpolled Johnson by 41% (+3) to 33% (+14), with Johnson winning in the second round after getting the vast majority of second preferences from Lib Dem voters.
This doesn’t change the fact that Labour won, but it does matter for other elections: this second preference system will be abolished before the next Mayoral election, and in any event UK Parliament elections don’t use it anyway.
As a result, whilst Labour’s victory in Cambridgeshire was brilliant, the breakdown of first preference votes is not particularly encouraging for future elections. Across the six local authorities, Labour’s vote increased – often substantially – but the party only won the most first preferences within one local authority (Cambridge). The Lib Dems won in one area (South Cambridgeshire), whilst the Tories won the other four areas. This suggests that prospects for Labour gains in Parliamentary elections in the area are not promising.
So what can we learn from all this data? Well, firstly, Labour is not surging in the South. It actually went backwards in the South in May, in many areas losing worse than it did in the North and Midlands. And even the two positive results (the Mayoral elections) reflected long-term trends (in the West of England) and the effect of the Supplementary Vote system (in Cambridgeshire).
Labour is having difficulty everywhere at present – South, North, Midlands, Scotland, etc. The only nation where Labour performed well in May was in Wales, where Corbynite Mark Drakeford led Welsh Labour to win an astounding 30 of 60 seats in the Welsh Parliament. Labour should learn from Drakeford’s example, and present a clear set of social democratic policies that will improve people’s lives. That’s how we’ll win.