May 11, 2022

It would be easy to conclude that Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party is on its way out. Shortly before yesterday’s Queen’s Speech, the incumbent party lost more than one-quarter of all local council seats it was defending. It is being chased out of the southern Blue Wall. Labour has cemented and expanded its dominance over London and is now rebuilding in Scotland. And the signs of a much stronger progressive alliance in British politics can be seen in the continuing dominance of the SNP, a solid performance by Labour and Plaid Cymru in Wales, a resurgence of support for the Liberal Democrats, and the best local election result for the Greens on record.

Had the 2022 local elections been held across the entire country then Labour would have a national equivalent vote of 35% compared with the Conservative’s 32%. Were this replicated at a general election, it would likely deliver a hung parliament and make Keir Starmer the first Labour Prime Minister since Gordon Brown. For all of these reasons, in recent days MPs, columnists and pollsters have been writing Johnson’s political obituary, urging him to go before he ruins the Conservative brand forever. The only way forward is to change course — and to do so quickly.

Only, not so fast. Look more closely at what just unfolded and there are good reasons why Team Johnson — after everything — should be feeling quietly confident about the next general election. For a start, many people are exaggerating the predictive power of local elections: in reality, they are a poor guide to what will happen at general elections.

People tend to forget this today, but Labour similarly won the national equivalent vote at the local elections in 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, and then again in 2016, before drawing even with the Conservatives in 2018 and 2019. Ed Miliband’s Labour Party made striking gains at local elections between 2011 and 2014, winning an impressive 857 seats and gaining 26 councils in 2011, before winning another 823 seats and 42 councils in 2012. Yet Miliband never saw Number 10.

At all three of the general elections held during this period — in 2015, 2017, and 2019 — it was the Conservatives, not Labour, who won majorities or were returned to power as the largest party. Turn the clock even further back and you will find other warnings from history. Even under the radical Left-winger Michael Foot, Labour consistently outperformed Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party at the local elections between 1980 and 1982, including when Thatcher lost more than 1,100 seats in 1981, shortly before she won her second landslide.

And five years later, in 1986, Thatcher again lost around 1,000 council seats before winning her third and final landslide the following year. So too did John Major, in 1991, shortly before he won his surprising majority in 1992. And while the Conservatives routinely finished ahead of New Labour at local elections in the early 2000s, their share of the vote in 2005 lagged well behind their national equivalent vote at the local elections. In short, local elections are like the weatherman: worth listening to but they do not always give us an accurate forecast.

Even if you do view them as a useful indicator it is also worth remembering that, historically, opposition parties that have gone on to win the next general election attract a national equivalent vote share of around 40% and enjoy double digit leads over the governing party.

This is what Tony Blair achieved in 1996, when his 14-point lead over John Major at the local elections cleared the path for his massive majority. It is also what David Cameron achieved in 2009, when he fell just short of the 40% mark but still led Brown by 15-points before emerging as the leader of the largest party in 2010. In fact, at no point between 1979 and 2022 has an opposition party managed to overturn an incumbent government after attracting a national equivalent vote of less than 40%. Labour, for the record, just polled 35% — the same share that Jeremy Corbyn achieved in 2018.

This should be a cause for concern in Team Starmer. After everything — after the Covid-19 pandemic, Partygate, Cummingsgate, Rishigate, scandals, inflation, and a rapidly escalating cost-of-living crisis — Labour attracted just a five-point lead over the Conservatives. A five-point lead. Those who compare politics today with the Nineties, arguing that a string of Tory scandals will propel Labour into office, miss a crucial point. At the local elections between 1993 and 1996, Blair and Labour averaged a 14-point lead over the Conservatives.

These points are especially important given that, historically, incumbent parties tend to better their local election performance at the following general election — as Cameron did in 2015, Theresa May did in 2017, and Johnson did in 2019. Meanwhile, opposition parties tend to underperform. In other words, if you take the lessons of political history seriously, then all of this gives us a message: while the Labour Party has stabilised, it is still a long way from winning the next general election.

And this is especially true when you look at Labour’s performance in one part of the country that will play a major role in determining the outcome of that election: England. While Labour is moving in the right direction in London, Scotland and Wales, stacking up votes in lots of areas where it already has support, across a large swathe of non-London England, which was the engine behind populism, Brexit and Boris Johnson, it is an entirely different story.

Labour only advanced modestly in southern England, while falling back by three-points in the north and failing to demonstrate serious progress elsewhere. Of the four local councils Labour took from the Conservatives, three were in London and all were in the south. Despite all the talk over the last two years about Labour “winning back the Red Wall”, Labour recorded net losses in the North and Midlands. Remarkably, the Greens (+63) and Luftur Rahman’s Aspire Party (+23) gained more councillors in England than Labour (+22) — a damning indictment of a party that hopes to return to Number 10 less than two years from now.

These shifts point to what I suspect will be Team Johnson’s strategy between now and the next election — throw absolutely everything at mobilising non-London England against what they will argue is the looming “threat” of an economically chaotic Labour-SNP alliance. You can already see elements of it in the Queen’s Speech — the strong focus on making more of the Brexit Dividend, the Levelling-Up and Regeneration Bill, a British Bill of Rights, tougher action on illegal immigration and the Channel Crossings, and the focus on law and order.

All this is geared toward mobilising pro-Brexit English identifiers who have been trending from Left to Right for 20 years. Labour, remember, have still not won the popular vote in England since 2001. This strategy has been used before, of course. It was in 2015 when, despite a similarly difficult economic environment and bleak numbers in the polls, Cameron won a majority mainly by capturing 60% of seats in England and 41% of the vote — his party’s highest share since the rise of New Labour in 1997.

It was then implicitly used again four years later, in 2019, when Johnson won 47% among the English and 65% of seats in England, cementing a much stronger relationship with English Leavers. Now, he may be hoping that a similar strategy will not only retain the Red Wall but expand it even further, offsetting losses in the southeast by targeting the nearly three dozen seats in the Red Wall 2.0. With both Brexit and Boris having alienated liberal graduates in Remainia, some around the Prime Minister might well conclude that this is now the only viable strategy — to lean into the realignment.

Only, this time around, Johnson is unlikely to have a Ukip or a Brexit Party breathing down his neck, with the latter estimated to have cost the Conservative Party 50 seats in 2019. Will the one in four 2019 Conservative voters who are currently telling pollsters they plan to sit out the next election really do this? Put the prospect of a Labour-SNP coalition in front of them and watch what happens.

There is no doubt this is incredibly high risk. If levelling-up fails to deliver, if the government fails to show it can control illegal immigration, if the cost of living escalates to such a point that the Conservatives are no longer considered more economically competent than Labour, and if Starmer wins his gamble over Beergate and proceeds to exploit the recession, inflation, rising unemployment, and a sharp economic downturn that looms on the horizon, then it is not hard to see how Johnson’s entire coalition could fall apart in one fell swoop.

But looking at these results and the direction of British politics, with less than two years to go until the next general election, both the Prime Minister and the people around him may well conclude that there is no alternative — that their path to retaining power no longer lies in being a one-nation party but rather a party for forgotten England.