It is said in political circles that it’s not so much that oppositions win elections but that governments lose them. Given the staggering unpopularity of the Conservative party, revealed by the recent local government elections in England, Labour might not be blamed for taking its foot off the pedal. It should be cruising towards unlocking the door to No10. But it’s not cruising. People back winners and, so far, Labour has failed to win that golden glow.
Labour has distinct problems, each a hurdle that must be overcome to secure electoral victory. Starmer must win 123 seats just to have an overall majority of one and have a minimum 7-point lead over the Tories to achieve that. Until the local government elections, the Tories, along with the SNP, were Labour’s biggest bogeymen. The North duly obliged and looks like it will turn back to its traditional red colour when it votes for Westminster. Where Labour has been surprised is the strength of the LibDem vote across England.
Ed Davey’s troops recorded many successes, wresting a swathe of councils from Tory control, adding 407 new councillors in the process (1,628 elected in total). Remarkably, it took control of Windsor & Maidenhead, the latter town being the centre of Theresa May’s constituency.
The area is Home Counties traditional true blue on stilts. A place of long driveways, riverside gardens, private moorings and a vintage Bentley to pop down to get the children from boarding school on Sundays. Oh, and don’t forget the King has a substantial home in the area. If he must complain about the bin collections or noisy neighbours, he will have to deal with a LibDem run council. Taking Windsor & Maidenhead was a seismic moment for the LibDems.
The party’s vote share in England hit 20%, just 6% behind the Tories. The historic tragedy for the LibDems (LDs) is that they often do well in the dying months of a parliament, then get squeezed out by the money and influence of the big two, and the iniquities of the first past the post system. But this time might be different. In many parts of the South East, South West, West and East of England the Labour party has regularly been the voter’s third choice.
Most constituencies have been steady Tory seats. Now they are high on the LibDem’s target list. Voters in these places may be drawn to the LDs generally pro-Europe stance. The Rejoin vote seems to grow daily. The party’s reputation for compassionate politics may garner the votes of those who find the Tory response to immigration and poverty simply inhumane. Then there’s Keir Starmer’s grey man personality.
Ed Davey is almost as dull as Starmer, but he’s not Starmer. Labour strategists must have nightmares about their leader’s lack of connection with the Great British Public (GBP). The worst possible scenario for Labour would be LibDem voters in Red Wall seats not voting tactically to dump Tories, but voting LibDem. Such people might calculate that Labour will win anyway, so why not cast my vote for the party I like and help stop Labour getting too up itself.
As we get closer to the general election, the Conservative party will wind up its money machine. Its client media will fall into line. Most of all, it will use its levers of power to hand tangible benefits to voters. In England, the national press attack will be almost mainly on Labour, though now the LibDems will have to be in the sights of The Street of Shame.
In Scotland, the media guns will be out for the SNP. The majority of the Scottish media is Tory-supporting. Preserving the Union is their biggest aim, so the SNP will be relentlessly and ruthlessly attacked. Labour’s job is to convince Scottish voters it is a winning force. It has already started. It is attempting to embed the perception that not only is Labour winning, but that the SNP is a burnt-out husk, a spent force. Yesterday’s politics.
SNP in trouble but independence support stays high
The SNP has just gone through its toughest time since becoming a significant political presence in Scotland. It’s been in government at Holyrood for 13 years, but its mistakes, failures, voter dissatisfaction and daily bashings at the hands of an almost universally hostile media have added up. Once a fresh, glittering and extremely capable electoral machine, the party, at least for the time being, is not only dangerously quiet for its own good, but it also exudes an air of timidness. It is perhaps shell-shocked from recent events.
First Minister Hunza Yusaf’s troubles are playing to Labour’s advantage. Support for the SNP’s markedly down and its new leader’s personal ratings are in negative territory. While an early general election is Labour’s dream, the longer one is delayed the happier the SNP will be. It needs to settle in its new leader and ministerial team, find a new chief executive and a new press chief. It must have time to reenergise its constituency parties and work tirelessly to get young people to vote.
Despite losing members in recent years, the SNP still has over 70,000 card-carrying, subscription paying, supporters. No other party in Scotland runs close. If it can get just 5% of its members actively canvassing and leafleting over a sustained period, its fortunes should greatly improve. If it gets the young out to vote – who are 80% in favour of independence – seeming disaster could be translated into, if not a triumph for the SNP, then a big disappointment for Labour. Labour must win probably at least 20 seats in Scotland if it is to form a government in London. Now it has just one. It’s a very big hill.
Critically, Hunza Yusaf must soon make an impact as a politician and as a leader. He needs a choreographed campaign from now until the general election. A campaign with a strategic heart of the positive benefits the SNP has brought to Scotland, a short and credible list of new policies that can be delivered and a simple statement of SNP and Scottish values being as one. And lots of personal and media appearances that lift the First Minster to a much higher score among voters everywhere.
Given Scotland’s overwhelming support for EU membership and Keir Starmer’s refusal to even consider rejoining the Single Market, Yusaf would be surely insane to not go hard on Labour’s weakness on Europe and on Scotland’s unequivocal support for Europe.
Yusaf has a terrifyingly small window of time to pull the SNP back from a general election of lost seats and lost status. Sir John Curtice, the Strathclyde University polling expert, says the SNP’s problem is not independence. Support for independence has held up well in recent months. The latest poll, by Survation, shows a 1% uptick for independence. It is now Yes 48%, with 52% No. Voters are switching from the SNP to Alba, the LibDems and Scottish Greens. Even the Tories have put on support; up 1% at 19%. The surprise is that Labour has gone down, by 1% to 31%, still 7 points behind the SNP. Curtice asserts that Labour has failed to make a persuasive case to Scotland. The polling suggests he is right.
All parties want clear water between them and their opposition. With Europe, the SNP has oceans of deep blue sea between it and Labour. The economy is the key to voters’ hearts and minds, and the EU with its Single Market, is central to economic recovery. Yusaf’s job is to ensure the voters understand the gulf between the players.
Can the Scottish Greens break through?
Rishi’s Sunak’s Tories may be wiped off the Westminster map in Scotland. The LibDems are likely to tread water, though they might even put on a seat or two, to add to their current 4 MPs. Labour should have its best Scottish election since 2010, but the jury is out. But keep a weather eye on the Scottish Greens. The English local elections were a watershed moment for Green politics south of the border. The party there now has over 200 councillors.
The momentum from England might have rolled over the border. With 7 Members of the Scottish Parliament and 35 councillors spread over Scotland, the Scottish Green are seasoned campaigners. Like the SNP, they need the young to get engaged with the electoral process. Scoring a Scottish Green MP at Westminster is far from a done deal, but a good showing in rural and urban Scotland could mark the start of a new kind of Scottish politics.
It’s a confusing picture, which is why telling people this party or that party is a winner has already begun. Labour was first out of the blocks. People like winners and like voting for parties they think will win. Labour’s rivals need to get a move on or risk a bad night at the polls.