Rishi Sunak will be grateful that the coronation bank holiday weekend diverts attention away from the electoral bloodbath his party suffered on Thursday. More than 1,000 Conservative councillors lost their seats, and 48 Tory administrations were swept out as voters turned against the government in local authorities across the length and breadth of England.
The BBC’s projected national share – which estimates how parties would do had the whole country behaved in a similar way to the places voting last week – put the Conservatives on 26%, down two points on an already awful 2019 performance. Labour won a projected 35 points, up seven on 2019. The nine-point projected Labour lead is the largest in two decades.
The Conservatives’ 2019 electoral coalition has collapsed. The Johnson 2019 strategy involved attracting Brexit-focused “red wall” Leave voters while holding on to “blue wall” Remain-leaners suspicious of Brexit but hostile to Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn. With Brexit done and Corbyn gone, the bill for this strategy has now come due. Anger at rising bills and struggling public services drove big swings against Tory incumbents on both sides of the Brexit divide.
Labour was the biggest beneficiary, with a net gain of more than 500 seats and 22 councils. The opposition seized control of authorities across the general election battleground, including High Peak, Swindon and Plymouth. Even more encouraging for team Starmer, they seem at last to be bridging the Brexit divide – the stronger the Leave vote in an area, the better Labour did. Many of Labour’s biggest gains came in Brexit heartlands such as Stoke, Mansfield and Hartlepool, places that shunned the opposition just two years ago. Brexit is no longer holding Labour back.
Yet these encouraging advances in Leave area were balanced by a lukewarm showing elsewhere. Labour had weaker showings in wards where graduates, students and ethnic minorities congregate. The balance of Labour support has shifted in the last year from Remain areas towards Leave terrain. This may prove beneficial given the Leave skew of English general election battlegrounds, but apathy in Remain-leaning areas could be a sign of trouble to come if Labour takes power at Westminster.
Labour was also helped by a low baseline, with big gains in part reflecting recovery from a dismal showing in 2019, when a “plague on both your houses” sentiment was abroad, as voters angry at Brexit deadlock turned against both main parties. Labour has recovered from that low ebb, with a projected share up seven points on 2019. However, Labour’s 35% share this year is no better than the party achieved last year, a disappointment for the opposition given its big advance in the opinion polls over the past 12 months. Anxious Labour strategists might have hoped for more.
In much of the country, it was instead the Liberal Democrats who profited most from the Conservative slump. The third party achieved a projected share of 20%, the highest since it joined the coalition in 2010, and gained more than 400 seats and 12 councils. These gains reflected growing voter willingness to back whichever party looks best placed to defeat local Tory incumbents. This particularly benefited the Lib Dems as this year’s electoral map featured many commuter belt and shire councils where they were already the local opposition.
For the third local election in a row, voters rose up against Tory incumbents in these once true-blue Tory heartlands. Many Conservative MPs defending once safe seats from Liberal Democrat challengers will now be more anxious than ever at the gathering momentum of the Lib Dem surge in suburban south England.
The Greens were also on the march this year, with a record-breaking local election result. More than 200 wards now have Green councillors and once true-blue Mid-Suffolk now has a Green council, the party’s first majority local administration. Greens are becoming a force to be reckoned with in local elections, with candidates in nearly four out of every 10 wards, and winning an average of 12% where they stood.
This is the third election cycle in the last 30 years when three-quarters of voters have rejected the Conservatives. In 1995, voters coalesced behind Tony Blair’s opposition in an early indication of the landslide to come. In 2013, the Tory slump was driven by a Ukip surge on their right flank, presaging three general elections in a row where reuniting the right vote would prove a winning strategy.
But this year was different to either: the anti-Conservative vote is fragmented, going to Labour and the smaller parties on Labour’s liberal-left flank, but it is also strategic, with voters coalescing behind whichever party offers the strongest local challenge to Tory incumbents.
This combination of fragmentation and tactical coordination brings both risk and opportunity for Labour. Some of those backing smaller parties may be voters who reject the Conservatives yet also remain unconvinced by Labour. Labour cannot be certain of their future support.
Yet growing evidence of an electorate sufficiently angry at Tory incumbents to back whoever stands a chance of defeating them may presage tactical voting on a scale not seen since 1997. Such tactical voting would bring many extra seats into play for both Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Though the beneficiaries may vary, a strongly anti-incumbent mood is abroad. That is bad news for the government, and good news for all its opponents.
Robert Ford is professor of political science at Manchester University and co-author of The British General Election of 2019