It is less than a week since the local elections confirmed that party politics in England are changing in big ways. The weekend coronation then blew the election results off the front pages. But, with the king back in his palace and the bunting now stored away, it is important to re-engage with the inquest. A new electoral map of England emerged out of last week’s voting. The map matters. It is important to grasp what it means for British politics – but also to grasp what it doesn’t mean.
What it mainly means is that Labour is on course for a general election victory. Keir Starmer is right to make this claim. Projections from 4 May give the party a share of the poll lead of seven or nine points over the Conservatives. It’s a strange political system that sees this as disappointing. But with Prof John Curtice and his colleagues arguing that Labour will need a lead of 12 points to form a majority government, that’s how it is. It is a sign of how high the opposition’s expectations were raised by the Tory debacles of 2022 that there is suddenly now such nervousness.
The words that matter in what Starmer is saying, though, are “on course”. Labour is not there yet, because the general election is not now. There are as many as 20 months to go – in theory until January 2025. A lot can happen, even if the election is more likely to be 12 months away, in May 2024. That could include Labour being knocked off course. But it will also, when the time is right, require the clear statement that has long been promised of Labour’s priorities in government.
Something pretty remarkable would now have to happen for the Conservatives to stay in power after the next election. There are few signs of that. With few potential partner parties, the Tories will need an outright win. According to the Oxford political scientist Stephen Fisher, the Conservatives need a 10-point swing between now and the election. That’s bigger than any postwar Tory government has achieved in its final months, including Margaret Thatcher’s after the Falklands war.
On the opposition side, last week’s results have brought a renewed focus on a possible hung parliament. The spoils were shared between Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens. But it is important to grasp that a hung parliament is not inevitable, even on last week’s numbers and voting patterns. Conservative shares fell more sharply where they were defending seats – which, if repeated, is ominous for many of the party’s 2019 contingent of MPs. Scotland and Wales, where there were no elections last week, could also help to fuel a Labour overall victory.
The results both embodied and made a case for opposition party cooperation. More than twice as many people voted for the three main opposition parties as voted for the Conservatives. Sometimes, in such circumstances, the opposition parties cancel one another out, allowing Conservatives to win through. There were examples of this, as in the Bedford mayoral election. In many more cases, however, opposition voters focused on their best placed contender, sometimes with spectacular results.
Although part of this was achieved by tactical voting, cooperation takes many forms. Each of the opposition parties agreed not to fight hard in every seat, allowing resources to be concentrated; and in some cases, they agreed not to stand at all. In Mid Suffolk, for example, the Greens won control of their first district council in England, with 24 of the 34 seats at stake. But they were partly able to achieve this because Labour stood in only eight seats, and the Lib Dems in only 13. This left voters who wanted to vote against the Tories with less choice. Similar things happened in South Oxfordshire and East Hertfordshire.
The main spur to all this is the good relations that exist at the top of the main opposition parties about the national need to replace the Conservatives. Keir Starmer and Ed Davey have worked quietly but efficiently together for many months. But don’t assume this will happen in the general election. There, each party will field candidates in all seats, as usual. But there will also be a limited yet tacit distribution of opposition target seats, broadly in favour of Labour in northern England and of the Lib Dems in the south.
Neither party wants a formal electoral pact, and there will not be one, except just possibly in some local contests. The aim instead is to repeat the pincer movement that proved so successful for both parties in 1997, when Labour won former Tory bastions including Hastings, Hove and Wimbledon, and the Lib Dems turned true-blue places such as Lewes, Southport and Twickenham orange.
Even for this level of cooperation to succeed, however, requires the buy-in of party activists and the voters. Neither of these can be taken for granted, and certainly not in a uniform way. Talk of a progressive consensus, for which the local elections provided fresh evidence, needs to be put in the context of the opposition parties’ long history of mutual tribalism.
Traditional Labour activists possess no more warmth towards the Liberal Democrats than the other way around. Labour, in particular, remains overwhelmingly a majoritarian party, happy to see the Tories beaten in seats that are unwinnable by Labour but deeply averse, not merely because of the excuse of the 2010-15 Tory-Lib Dem coalition, to working with the Lib Dems in government.
One day, perhaps, all this will change, probably a decade or two after it would have been most needed. That will not be in 2024. If Starmer becomes prime minister next year, a century after the first Labour government, he is likely to follow the example of both Ramsay MacDonald and Harold Wilson by forming a minority government, not attempting to create a coalition.
Davey would love a commitment to electoral reform as the price of supporting Labour in a hung parliament. But unless Starmer has given Davey a hint that this could happen, which seems unlikely, it is more probable that he would challenge the Lib Dems to bring down a minority Labour government. In one sense, that’s understandable. Having won a famous victory over the Tories, just as Tony Blair did in 1997, why should Starmer choose to use Labour government time to change the electoral system? It would be a hard sell to voters who want economic and social measures to be the priority.
I am fairly certain that Starmer knows Britain would be better off with electoral reform. He surely sees that the reformed multiparty politics that would follow from it would also provide the best bulwark for the human rights that have been so central to his legal career. He would be right to think this. But he is a political leader now, and Labour’s deeply traditional sense of its own self-interest is pulling him in a different direction.