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The Tories must capture forgotten England Team Johnson sees a way to hold onto power

He's not leaving. Credit: Leon Neal/Getty


May 11, 2022   6 mins

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.


Matthew Goodwin is Professor of Politics at the University of Kent. His new book, Values, Voice and Virtue: The New British Politics, is out on March 30.

GoodwinMJ

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R Wright
R Wright
2 years ago

I’m shocked it took the Tories this figure out that they should cut their losses in London. They cannot beat demography. Let young and immigrant voters congregate into the same handful of seats while they dominate the rest. With that they could stay in power another decade or two.

Douglas H
Douglas H
2 years ago
Reply to  R Wright

Immigrants are not necessarily Labour supporters, demography does not bring any inevitables

R Wright
R Wright
2 years ago
Reply to  Douglas H

You are correct, especially when it comes to conservative Indians and Africans. The majority, however, swallow their pride and vote for Labour. Both parties are dire, but one is more nakedly captured by its obsession with promoting immigration despite its unpopularity.

hayden eastwood
hayden eastwood
2 years ago
Reply to  R Wright

The democrats in the USA have banked on the calculation that immigrants = votes for them. But they’ve been furious to discover that many, particularly from formerly or actively left leaning countries, vote conservative. Unfortunately, immigrants don’t always behave in the ways you hope, as the democrats are discovering to their peril.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago

Hence the need to scare them by pushing racism and anti-imagrant narratives. Of course, unfortunately, there is a large cadre on the Right who play right into this,

Andrew Langridge
Andrew Langridge
2 years ago

The northern ‘red wall’ seats will be key at the next election. While the Tories might be losing ground in the south, it is hard to see them imploding there.
It is clear to me that, given the largely self-inflicted mess that Johnson is in, and the escalating economic crisis, Labour are severly underperforming. In my view, the party missed a trick by not selecting a northern woman, such as Nandy or Long-Bailey as their leader. Starmer is an uncharismatic southern lawyer who, while popular in London, as shadow Brexit secretary was heavily implicated in Labour’s disastrous position on Brexit before the last General Election.
As the article says, Labour’s main hope is that the economic condition worsens to such an extent that northerners vote with their pockets instead of on Brexit and immigration.

Peter B
Peter B
2 years ago

Tend to agree. I think the Lib Dem threat in the south is – as things stand today – overstated. It’s likely today that this is as much classic protest vote as permanent shift. But that may yet change.
It certainly seems to be the case that around here (South Cambs), Labour have effectively stood down to give the Lib Dems a free run outside Cambridge (which is now solidly Labour). I’m not convinced this is actually going to work that well though.
I also agree that Labour success in London (and large cities) may be a negative outside London.
Nandy, Long-Bailey, Reeves, Rayner. They’ll need to do a lot better than that to have any chance. The Tories don’t have much talent these days. But then you look at Labour and the Lib Dems …

Matt M
Matt M
2 years ago
Reply to  Peter B

It isn’t the accents that is the problem it is the opinions. Nandy in particular is a woke zealot. Very unlikely to reverse Red Wall seats.

Last edited 2 years ago by Matt M
Caroline Watson
Caroline Watson
2 years ago

People in traditional Labour areas will vote Labour in local elections because they are voting for local people who share their values. Local Labour parties in places like Cumbria are still populated by the same people that they always were and it is those people who stand for the local council.
In a general election, where the candidate is likely to be a middle class identity politician, imposed by Labour HQ, and the Tory a local farmer or business person, they will vote for the local person who shares their local values.
It really isn’t that difficult to understand!

Graham Moore
Graham Moore
2 years ago

The problem: 
One thing people tend to overlook is the Marxist attack on the electoral college in the USA.  Why do they attack the electoral college?  Because it is key to keeping urban areas from hijacking America and the American Constitution (the American Constitution is mostly English). In much the same way, London has hijacked England.  The metropolitan bubble otherwise known as the ‘EU region of London’ mirrors Washington DC.  Washington DC is an autonomous zone, similar to the City of London where the ‘usual rules’ don’t apply. Washington DC has hijacked America and centralised power under the supposedly federal government. With this over-centralisation has come a rising tide of corruption and myriad abuses of power. Never has Lord Acton’s quote been more apposite: ‘power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’.  
The Solution:  
The answer to our problems lies in radical decentralisation. This would return England to counties, districts and parishes, install an English Parliament and voiding (not repealing) the Act(s) of Union, thereby removing the EU regions. This is the opposite to levelling up, which actually means the parasitical class mirroring the London EU region across the rest of England. Their (Lib, Lab, Con) levelling up is actually levelling down the rest of England.  Return London to Boroughs and reinstate the original boundaries of Essex, Kent, Middlesex, Surrey and remove the Marxist London Metropolitan Police.  
We need to reinstate our traditional industries: fishing, shipbuilding, coal, gas, oil, steel and farming.  We can reinstate our real English apprenticeships within these industries which were destroyed by the parasitical class.   The political class.  The political mafia.  
England is a traditional conservative country hijacked by Marxists.   Remember that Great Britain is an island. Within that island are two countries: England and Scotland, with a principality called Wales. Scotland has been hijacked by Marxists.  Wales has been hijacked by Marxists.  England as a conservative, hardworking nation has been surrounded by British Marxist colonialists and attacked from every side.  We the English are a direct threat to globalism, communism, Marxism and socialism.  Why else would Karl Marx say “Every communist revolution has been shipwrecked on the rock of England”. He didn’t say “Britain”. The artificial British colonial citizen has been created by ‘Soviet Britain’.  
The not-so-civil service should be removed in its current form.  The senior echelons of this parasite class ensconced in Whitehall are those really running the country. They drive the implementation of the cultural Marxist ideology in our country, including the institutionalised grooming of primary school children. We can institute the new English Parliament in Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, York or Hull. The Palace of Westminster can be reopened as a museum of treason and corruption. This is in the same vein as the Soviet Secret Police HQ in Budapest, which has been transformed into the House of Terror Museum, summarising the post-war communist coup and resulting reign of terror. Westminster will be a relic no different to the Politburo of the Soviet Union.   
The insidious influence of the non-governmental organisations will be rooted out. How many organisations promoting open borders or the climate change narrative are funded by George Soros’s Open Society Foundation? 
We need to rebuild England from the ground up as a traditional Christian nation.  Put England, God, the Constitution and the traditional family back into our schools, colleges and universities. Take England back from the parasitical classes called globalists (a globalist is another name for communist).  
Marxist Britain has left our pensioners to starve or die from the cold.  We the English Constitution Party will not allow this to continue.  You built this country. You and your ancestors fought for this country. We respect you and want you to live a comfortable life in retirement.     
The only people that can turn this around is us, the English

Last edited 2 years ago by Graham Moore
ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago
Reply to  Graham Moore

Something like the Heptarchy in fact.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

Absolutely! I have long (and monotonously) pushed for this solution. The old “Heptarchy”, somewhat modified to reflect the changes since the 7th century (Northumbria would be too big and Kent too small), would make a good basis for regional parliaments. The advantages are miriad, but I think particularly it would allow local history and positive pride in one’s own “kingdom”. I’ll wave the flag of Wessex any day, and I’m sure there are proud Northumbrians and Mercians out there, too

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago

Exactly, after all an Englishman or Englishwoman from say Barnard Castle is somewhat different from one from Stow-on- the Wold are they not?
I’m also glad to, see you are not Claire D reincarnated!

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
2 years ago
Reply to  Graham Moore

Hear, hear!! exactly!

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 year ago
Reply to  Graham Moore

superb!

Stuart Morgan
Stuart Morgan
2 years ago

Tory strategy: manifesto promises of actual Conservative policies,get elected then behave like Labour Lite. Zero principles. Just get power then sit on their lardy @rses.

Andrew Lale
Andrew Lale
2 years ago

There is almost no point to articles like this. If you look at the top thirty government policies, the Tories, Labour and LibDems agree on nearly all of them. The suffocating ‘liberal’ globalist consensus which includes ultra-green and pro-immigrant policies spans all the major parties. If you don’t want that toxic soup, you have a choice of… nothing. No party.

SIMON WOLF
SIMON WOLF
2 years ago

As a former Lib Dem voter who voted Tory when Corbyn was leader not sure who i will vote for next time.The current green woke Lib Dems alienate me – what a pity they never made Lembit their leader.The Boris govt is a huge disappointment – what would other govts have done with a 80 seat majority.No real idea what a Labour govt would do in power.

Malcolm Knott
Malcolm Knott
2 years ago

Like almost every piece on politics today this reminds me of Mr Asquith’s famous phrase: ‘Wait and see.’

Lionel Woodcock
Lionel Woodcock
2 years ago

Accurate but long-winded piece. And aren’t we all bored to screaming about the lazy minded suffix of ‘gate’. Attacks on what the government is doing works in local elections; too easy; general elections take note of policies and we have yet to hear from Labour.

Pamela Booker
Pamela Booker
2 years ago

I rather like the way the way the Watergate scandal has created the suffix ‘gate’ to subsequent(albeit lesser) scandals. It is an example of how language evolves.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago

I couldn’t see many superfluous sentences in the article. ‘Long-winded’ = providing solid evidence and historical comparisons rather than just making assertions and preaching to the converted (as a lot of UnHerd contributors appear to prefer!)

Last edited 2 years ago by Andrew Fisher
Oliver Elkington
Oliver Elkington
2 years ago

At the last election many of the moderate seats in the South, even in London voted for Conservative because they could not stomach the thought of a Labour government. It will be the same at the next election, for all the faults of Boris sane governance is something that the majority of people are crying out for and to be fair it is something that Boris and his tories are trying to do by getting brexit done, levelling up deprived regions, toughening up on immigration controls and lowering unemployment, Labours policies are messy and never agreed on on the other hand.

Mike Michaels
Mike Michaels
2 years ago

Labour, Conservative it doesn’t matter. WEF stooges lead both of them. This is the pressing issue of our times yet nobody seems to want to talk about it.

https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/correspondence_between_leader_of

C W
C W
2 years ago

Something missing here. We are talking about the government of the UK at Westminster. Surely, we should also count the seats in Scotland and Wales, not just pretend that they don’t exist.

Last edited 2 years ago by C W
Peter B
Peter B
2 years ago
Reply to  C W

But they get to vote twice – once for devolved administrations and again for Westminster. Plus large subsidies from England. And still over-represented in Westminster until seat sizes are equalised.
I hardly think the SNP with 48 seats (80% of seats) for around 1.24 million votes can claim to be under-represented in Westminster. The biggest winners from a first past the post voting system.
In any case, there are not enough winnable Scottish constituencies for the Conservatives (without PR) to really make a difference – they’re always in the opposition column. However, a larger SNP share does play really badly in England (as the article correctly notes). A majority Labour government is far less objectionable to England than a Labour/SNP coalition.
There are plenty of marginal/swing constituencies in Wales.
But obviously most of the swing consituencies are in England.
If there is a problem here, I suggest it is Blair’s botched devolution and its inherent discrimination against England. Don’t be surprised if England doesn’t like it.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago
Reply to  Peter B

We need another Cromwell to organise a purely English referendum to decide whether to jettison this trio of ungrateful parasites, and the sooner the better.

Douglas H
Douglas H
2 years ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

And murder the Irish? I’d hope not

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago
Reply to  Douglas H

Forgive me, but I thought it was the other way round?

D Glover
D Glover
2 years ago

.

Last edited 2 years ago by D Glover
Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
2 years ago

Conservative voters have found that they have a Socialist, neo Orwellian lowest common denominator state controlling anti freedom of expression party in power…THAT is the problem!

Dan Miller
Dan Miller
2 years ago

Labour’s headed slowly and surly into another “Jewish” saga that will go on past the next chance for leadership (unless Starmer can eradicate the rascals)

Last edited 2 years ago by Dan Miller
Douglas H
Douglas H
2 years ago

Thanks, very good analysis

Mike MacCormack
Mike MacCormack
2 years ago

There’s no mystery here: the left and the centre left; Labour, Liberals, the SNP, the Greens, Plaid Cymru, and old uncle Tom Cobbley and all divide and weaken any opposition to the Tories to the extent that the Tories almost inevitably win in a first past the post contest with 30% to 35% of the vote. If the centre left would only stop mucking about and start cooperating with each other the Tories would be dead in a ditch.

Alan Hawkes
Alan Hawkes
2 years ago

A victory for the “party of forgotten England,” risks making Scotland even more likely to vote for independence.

David Wildgoose
David Wildgoose
2 years ago
Reply to  Alan Hawkes

Good! We English are always being sacrificed “for the sake of the Union”. I notice that the opposite NEVER applies though.