How is the political landscape changing? As the dust settles on the May 2021 elections, it is worth taking a closer look at the results to see what they might tell us.
The overall results for labour have been bad across the English elections. Labour has lost seats across many areas and, at the same time, the Tories have picked seats up.
Overall, the Tories have increased their number of councillors in contested areas by + 11%, labour have declined by -20%.
The LibDems remain the third largest party but have seen little real change.
Other important highlights are that UKIP has now disappeared from the political scene and Reform has failed to hoover up those old seats. The main beneficiary from the demise of UKIP has clearly been the Tories.
There has also been a dramatic increase in the amount of Green councillors (more than doubling their number of councillors in contested areas to 151).
One final important highlight is the fact that there have been gains across the board for a mix of independents (an 18% increase to 255 councillors).
Labour’s highest profile loss was, of course, Hartlepool. However, here, the story has more to it than meets the eye.
In Hartlepool the Tories saw their vote increase from 28.9% at the last general election to 51.9% on May 6th. Much of this gain is likely the result of the disappearance of the Brexit Party as a meaningful political force. 25.8% voted BP in 2019 which, if added to the Tory vote at that time, would total 54.7% – similar to the Tory vote this time around.
Whilst this may explain the Tory win, it does not explain the reduction in the Labour vote (falling from 37.7% in the last general election to 28.7%). Smaller parties like the Greens may have taken votes from Labour but as the Greens only accounted for 1.2% of the vote, this can hardly explain it.
One point to remember is that the incumbent MP was forced to leave office because of allegations of sexual harassment and victimization. This may have served to turn some voters away from Labour – but the question remains that whatever their reasons were for not voting Labour, who did those voters turn to?
A big factor appears to have been an independent candidate – Sam Lee, a local businesswoman. Sam positioned herself as someone who stood up for the local business community and a Westminster outsider. A vote for her, she claimed, would “show politicians that we are sick of their party games and empty promises”. A vote for her then, was, in many ways, a rejection of the status quo. Sam polled 9.7% of the vote and, as she didn’t stand in 2019, it looks like she may have taken a fair number of votes away from Labour.
So, in 2021, it may be that Hartlepool saw no real significant switch from Labour to Tory at all – that had already happened in 2019, when large numbers of voters changed to the Brexit Party. And having switched to the BP, the move to voting Tory seems to have been an easy step for many.
The vote for Sam Lee is significant though. It shows a considerable number of people prepared to vote for someone outside the political establishment, and a desire amongst many for something quite different from the established parties.
The Red Wall weakens in the North and Midlands
In general, results in the North and Midlands have shown the biggest Tory gains plus the most serious Labour losses.
Again, the explanation seems to lie mainly with picking up former Brexit Party voters rather than outright direct conversion of 2019 Labour voters.
The biggest Tory gains compared with previous local elections were in Yorkshire and Humberside (+11.2% up), the West Midlands (+9.7%) and the North East (+7.3%).
These marry up with the more significant Labour losses – Yorkshire and Humberside (-4.5%), the West Midlands (-5%) and the North East (-4%).
Labour losses and Tory gains were less significant elsewhere in England.
So, are we witnessing a sea-change in voting patterns in the North driven by regional factors or is it something more complicated than this?
It is true that the so-called Red-Wall has clearly been seriously eroded in many parts of the North. However, Labour has performed well in the area in certain large cities. Could it be that this is more about how voting patterns are changing in metropolitan v non-metropolitan areas, than it is about changing attitudes in the North?
The Metropolitan Effect
Labour has performed well in northern metropolitan areas such as Liverpool and Manchester, showing that it can hold its own there under the right conditions.
In Manchester, Labour even gained ground. Perhaps this was due in no small part to the charismatic Andy Burnham but the numbers tell a convincing tale.
Labour increased its share of the vote on the first choice for Mayor from 63.4% in 2017 to 67.3% in 2021. The Tories slipped from 22.7% to 19.6%. Here, the lesser parties were very much out of the picture.
The Labour Mayoral vote also held strong in Liverpool. No sign of any cracks in the Red Wall in these major northern cities; a quite different story from the story we see in less urban areas.
So why is the metropolitan vote in the North so different from the trends we see elsewhere?
The Role of ‘Englishness’
Will Jennings, Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at Southampton University, feels that the migration of voters to the Brexit Party and then to the Tories has much to do with the emergence of a strong English national identity. This tends to view the Tories as a party that is positive about the English and Labour as essentially mediocre about, or even hostile to, an English cultural identity.
Evidence for this can be found in BSA research that looked at the motives behind voting Leave/Remain in the Brexit vote. This found that people who identified themselves as ‘British’ and not ‘English’ in England, voted 62% in favour of Remain. However, 72% of people who identified themselves as ‘English’ and not ‘British’, voted in favour of Leave.
This sentiment, Jennings would argue, has translated into a vote for the Brexit Party in 2019 and has now converted into a Tory vote. Parts of the North which have switched to Tory are often areas where this sense of ‘Englishness’ is strongest.
However, cities such as Manchester and Liverpool are more cosmopolitan in character and have strong and distinct local identities (as Mancunians or Scouse). As a result, the tendency to strongly identify with an ‘English’ nationalist identity is less evident. This in turn translates into a much-reduced willingness to switch away from Labour to the BP or Tories.
Treating the ‘North’ as a single homogenous area would therefore appear to be a gross over-simplification.
A different picture in Southern England
In the South, there was less dramatic change in voting patterns. Although we saw some shift to the Tories in the council elections, the change was nowhere near as significant or dramatic as that seen in political landscape in the North.
However, there are a couple of interesting results that are worth pulling out – both Labour Mayoral wins.
The first is the result for Cambridge and Peterborough. On the first choice alone, the Tories would have won (Tory 41%, Labour 33%, LibDems 27%). However, once the LibDems were knocked out of the picture the second-choice votes for these voters were overwhelmingly Labour. The result enabled Labour to win (just) by 51%.
The second result is for the West of England Mayor (which covers Bristol, Bath and North East Somerset and South Gloucestershire).
Here Labour increased its vote from 22.2% to 33.4% in the first round. The Tories also actually did a little better (increasing from 27.3% to 28.6%). The LibDems, again, saw limited but negative change (20.2% down to 16.3%) and the Greens again, saw progress (up to 21.7% from 11.2%).
Again it is worth noting that the presence of a strong independent candidate can affect the results. In 2017 such a candidate polled 15% of the vote but this time around, no such candidate stood.
This does raise the possibility that a future cooperative arrangement between Labour, Greens and LibDems in the south could potentially cause significant damage to the Tories in some parts of the southern political landscape. However distant and unlikely such a prospect might seem today.
What about Scotland?
The results in Scotland, of course, have been quite different from anything we see in England.
Here we have seen the SNP make modest progress – increasing their share of the vote from 46.5% of constituency votes at the last parliamentary election in 2016 to 47.7% now. The Tories saw little change in fortune (21.9% share now vs 22% in 2016). Labour, too, saw limited change (21.6% down from 22.6%).
The SNP have consolidated and built on their dominant position even if they have not achieved an outright majority. Some have suggested that they owe their electoral success at least in part to the general perception that Nicola Sturgeon has handled the Covid crisis well.
One might make a similar observation across the UK. This is that the light beckoning at the end of the Covid tunnel tends to favour the incumbent administrations – the SNP in Scotland and the Tories in England. There is no doubt some truth in this and, if so, we can see this pattern repeated in Wales.
What about Wales?
Wales bucked the pro-Tory trend we see in England. Here comparisons with England are more interesting because Wales, like England, voted Leave (whereas Scotland did not). However, UKIP and latterly the Brexit Party have never been quite the force in Wales that they were in many parts of England (the Brexit Party registered only 5% of the Welsh vote in the 2019 election).
Here the Tories have not managed to benefit anywhere near so much from picking up former UKIP or Brexit Party voters. In 2016 the Tories got 21.1% of the constituency vote, which they have been able to increase to 25.1% this time around. This no doubt reflects picking up some of the old UKIP votes (which accounted for 12.5% of the votes in the 2016 assembly election).
However, in Wales Labour have increased their share of the vote from 34.7% to 39.9%. Plaid Cymru have remained at pretty much the same level (20.7% vs 20.5% last time).
As with elsewhere, it may well be that the incumbent administration is benefiting from the feeling that we are headed in the right direction Covid-wise.
The lack of the BP/UKIP factor in Wales in the political landscape meant there were only a limited number of these voters for the Tories to potentially pick up. This supports Professor Jennings’ view that it is the sense of Englishness that has driven a migration of votes from labour, via UKIP and the Brexit Party, to the Tories. The absence of the ‘Englishness’ factor in Wales potentially explains why such a pattern has not been repeated here.
It is probably worth concluding by saying that we ought to be very careful in what we read into these results. The 2021 elections have occurred at a time when so much is in a state of flux. The Covid crisis makes these times most unusual indeed.
In a few years’ time when (hopefully) Covid no longer dominates our lives, we will be living in a vastly different world. Also, we cannot yet say what the longer-term impacts of Brexit may be. We are also only at the very beginning of the Tory levelling-up agenda. Much has been promised, but what will be delivered?
This election has highlighted some important emerging trends, but the events of the next few years could yet see things change quite radically.
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