I’m not generally the sort of person who complains about television programmes, but I might make an exception for the BBC’s coverage of the local election results yesterday morning. It was, quite simply, one of the most brutal and sadistic TV shows I think I’ve ever seen. By comparison Game of Thrones looked like a Teletubbies spinoff, and Silence of the Lambs a family movie. I’m far from convinced it should have been broadcast before the 9pm watershed. Because what the show depicted was wholescale unvarnished butchery. Specifically the slaughter of the Labour Party and UKIP.
There was only one real winner in the local elections which took place across Britain on Thursday. The Conservative Party. Or, to use its full name, as now seems especially appropriate, The Conservative and Unionist Party. I’m a longstanding Conservative member and even I’ll admit that, until quite recently, there were parts of the country which were virtually no-go zones for the Tories. Large parts of the North of England, the economically deprived parts of major cities, Scotland and Wales elected very few Conservatives at any level. This situation has been changing for a while, but Thursday felt like a breakthrough moment. There are now virtually no areas of the UK, except Liverpool and Northern Ireland where they don’t stand, which couldn’t conceivably return a significant number of Tory representatives. The Conservatives are once again, and perhaps to a greater extent than ever before in their history, a One Nation party. For those of us concerned about Britain’s social and national cohesion, this is excellent news.
Jeremy Corbyn celebrates loosing several hundred Councillors in Manchester yesterday.
I’ve got to start somewhere, so I’ll plump for Scotland. The Scottish Conservatives gained over 160 council seats, and they took them from the Highlands right to the English border. They took seats in some of Scotland’s most deprived wards, such as Shettleston in Glasgow, where nobody seemed more surprised than the 20 year old Tory candidate himself. Moving South to England the Conservatives took four of the six new Combined Authority Mayoral positions, narrowly beating Labour in Tess Valley and the West Midlands, both of which should have been solid Labour territory. They largely hoovered up the UKIP vote, with the party going from 146 Councillors to one, and held their own against an expected Lib Dem revival.
Meanwhile the Conservatives replaced Labour as the party with most Councillors in areas of the country, such as Nottinghamshire and Lancashire, which Labour really should be holding if it is to avoid embarrassment at next month’s General Election. In Wales the story for Labour wasn’t as bad as expected, but only because polling suggested its performance would be catastrophic. In the event is was merely poor, and thus a relative success, with the party losing Councillors overall but retaining control of most of the Welsh urban centres.
More interesting, to my mind at least, than listing Conservative gains is explaining them. Why have the Tories become competitive across so much of the UK? Scottish elections are now effectively separate from their English and Welsh counterparts. Like those in Northern Ireland, the primary issue is now constitutional, on membership of the United Kingdom, and this seems to be helping the two parties with the most clearly defined positions. The SNP are of course the nationalist voice, whilst the Scottish Conservatives are the most unambiguously pro-union voice. Of the major unionist parties, they’re the only one which looks remotely comfortable wrapping itself in the Union Jack. They’ve also been helped by some level of Labour ambiguity on the issue, as when Corbyn said he would be happy for a second referendum on Scottish independence to take place. It seems that a vote for the Scottish Tories is more a vote for unionism than conservatism, but in the long-run this could change. The SNP’s handling of the Scottish economy and education system has been pretty awful, and this could create the space for a further revival of centre-right politics in Scotland.
In England and Wales the story is partly one of opposition weakness. Theresa May is certainly lucky in her enemies. Corbyn has the sort of poll ratings usually reserved for tropical diseases whilst Tim Farron, whilst amicable, has so far failed to create much of a spark with the British public. Corbyn’s pro-immigration and anti-Western stances, combined with his general incompetence, are costing his party in working-class areas. Brexit has certainly helped the Tories appeal to working-class voters, who disproportionately voted for it. In particular the Conservatives look to have taken a good proportion of the UKIP vote, with those voters liking what Theresa May has to offer. It’s looking like UKIP has functioned as a sort of stepping stone, allowing former Labour voters who are initially reluctant to vote Conservative to support the right, before they finally make the jump to the Tories. Theresa May, and the composition of her Government, also help in this respect. The posh boys line, which was consistently effective against Cameron and Osborne, won’t cut the mustard against May and her team.
Moreover, and not necessarily as I expected, liberal ‘Remain’ voting Conservatives are sticking with their party. I suspect this is because they have little choice. Neither Labour nor the Liberal Democrats can plausibly act as much of a break on ‘hard’ Brexit. The Lib Dems are too small, whilst Labour isn’t credible (and in any case its present leadership is pretty Eurosceptic). If the Labour Party was currently led by people who are competent and moderate, Blairites if you like, I suspect it would be taking a lot of centrist voters away from the Tories. Fortunately for Theresa May, it most certainly is not.
Not so long ago it looked like the Conservatives were becoming a party of the English South and Midlands. Its appeal in Scotand appeared to have ended, and in Wales it had never begun. This is clearly no longer the case. If the SNP want to continue making jokes about there being less Conservative MPs in Scotland than pandas, they’re almost certainly going to need to get a hell of a lot more pandas. Due to a variety of factors, most crucially the quality of their leadership vs Labours, Labours hard move to the left, Brexit and the national question in Scotland, the Conservatives are once again a One Nation party. They are appealing to the working-class as well as the wealthy, the North as well as the South, and the Celtic nations in addition to the Anglo-Saxon one. The Conservative Party has produced a number of great One Nation Prime Ministers, from Stanley Baldwin to Harold MacMillan. There is every possibility that Theresa May will shortly find herself added to this list.