Frances Lasok is a political campaign manager for local elections.
The Conservative Party is reinvigorated with a new leader, new Cabinet and a bright future ahead.
But there’s an elephant in the room, and it’s not what we think. May saw two elections that were disastrous for both major parties. The significant news was not the decline of the Conservative vote in opposition to Labour, expected given the position of the party, but the meteoric rise in “None of the Above”: Brexit Party, Independent (+600), Liberal Democrat (+700), Green (+190).
Before the local elections, the news has been dominated by internal politics within the two major parties, whether the election of the Conservative Party leader or the Labour anti-Semitism crisis.
Who was left behind?
Meet Mrs Jones. She is late 70s to early 80s. She lives in a mid-size market town, does not like “politics” and does not like infighting, and has always voted Conservative. Meet Ms Darlington. She is university-educated, late 40s to early 50s, lives in a university town, and has mostly voted Conservative. During the past year, they turned on the TV or radio to hear not about items they care about, but about more internal politics and more internal infighting. During the last elections, they asked canvassers on the doorstep not “should we vote Conservative or Labour?” but “Why should we vote for either?”
The local and European election results told an interesting story. It was more than a bad night for the Conservatives and a disappointing night for Labour, but a potentially seismic shift in the two-party system.
Just under 250 Councils were up in the local elections. The Conservative Party lost control of 44 Councils and over 1,300 seats, going past the worst-case scenario predictions. Of these, 33 were metropolitan areas up in thirds: predominantly Labour and predominantly stayed that way. A further 47 were unitary authorities, a mix of urban/rural and all-in all-out: a mix of Labour, Conservative and No Overall Control and, barring a few Labour/Conservative to No Overall Control, largely stayed that way. 168 – nearly half of the night’s results – came from predominantly Conservative rural district councils with predominantly all-in all-out elections. 29 of the 44 lost councils and the majority of the seats were from the largely rural Districts.
What is telling, and one of the reasons why the result caught so many by surprise, is that these losses were not in traditionally marginal seats. At a low point, you’d expect the Conservative Party to do badly against Labour, and the “bellweather seats” – marginals that shift every election – to shift against the incumbent party to the traditional Opposition. But these were places like Chelmsford (Con-Lib Dem): spread across 3 Conservative seats with the narrowest Parliamentary majority 13,000; the Cotswolds, a Parliamentary majority of 25,000; Mid-Devon, two seats with 15,000 and 19,000 majorities; Mid-Suffolk, two seats with 17,000 and 18,000 majorities; Vale of the White Horse, covering Wantage with a Parliamentary majority of 17,000.
The Conservative Party has a new, charismatic leader and is up against a steadily, inexorably declining Labour. But with the circus of the last year and with Brexit coming to a head in October, hidden behind the noise of the airwaves are a growing number of voters who are simply fed up of all politics. It’s long been a truism of local government that minor parties win against complacent Conservatives. Mrs Jones and Ms Darlington are probably canvassed Conservatives, and neither are likely to vote for Corbyn’s Labour, but they will vote for a Liberal Democrat, Green or Independent candidate if the Conservatives do not make their case. And if they voted in 2019, the chances are they did. The 2019 results came from seats were last up for election in 2015, allowing a direct comparison: rather than being a matter of turnout, or a relatively small number of Con/Lab switchers, huge swathes of voters for minor Opposition parties in 2019 were the Conservative voters of 2015.
The “success stories” of the last locals were the gains against Labour: Walsall, North East Derbyshire, and indirect win in Dudley. The gains in 2017 were Mansfield, Walsall North, Stoke on Trent South, North East Derbyshire, Stockport, Copeland: urban, working class, traditional Con/Lab marginals. Spoilt ballots from some of the Conservative-Labour marginals in 2019 tell an interesting story. There were four or five per cent of them in straight Con-Lab fights, down to one per cent or less than when the voters had a Independent/Green and to a lesser extent Lib Dem candidate. Voters making the choice between the two incumbent parties did not necessarily do so happily, but still they voted. This is where the Conservatives stand to make gains the next time round.
But the warning sign is the shift in the vote in the rural seats, places where the Conservative Party has traditionally had to weigh the vote: the Chelmsfords, Cotswolds, Central Devons, Central Suffolks, the “safe” Conservative Parliamentary seats now held by a minor party opposition council. Losing against Labour is difficult but part of the established political cycle, the two-party system as we understand it: the growth of the minor parties, in these seats, shows something different and more worrying. Huge majorities – as Labour found out against the SNP in Scotland 2015 and the SNP found out against the Conservatives in 2017 – can disappear in a flash if they are not backed up with ground-level campaigning. These seats are where, often, the incumbent parties may lack the infrastructure they have in the current Con-Lab marginals.
Where the Conservative Party did well at its lowest point, the local elections, was with local candidates and local messaging: where voters were given a positive reason to vote Conservative. Knocking on doors in the local elections, the areas that won or held Councils had strong local messaging and, on a ward basis, electors who could name their candidate. In some ways, the “safe seats” were the most vulnerable: areas that often hadn’t seen a strong opposition in living memory and so, crucially, lacked a culture of knock-every-door campaigning and consequently the personal vote that saved many marginal seat councillors.
Boris Johnson is a charismatic leader. You can knock on any door in any seat and residents will know his name. His leadership of the Conservative Party gives a chance to drag the country back to the two-party system, to a united Conservative Party and a coherent message.
But, as it did during the Brexit campaign, the airwaves have focussed on the political status quo, familiar faces and familiar parties. This can hide an earth-shattering shift on the ground: a vast number of “ordinary” voters who when faced with a choice at the last election ticked “none of the above”. Under the new Conservative leadership, knocking on every door, making the case and above all listening to the electorate – in every so-called “safe” seat – becomes more important than ever before.