On 23 March 2020, 27.1m Brits watched Boris Johnson’s statement announcing the first national lockdown. The 8th most watched television broadcast in British history, the announcement was the unwanted finale to a chaotic period in British politics.
The last 6 years have seen a relentless outpouring of politics in Britain. Since the Scottish independence referendum in September 2014, the country has suffered 3 General Elections, the aftermath of the EU referendum, and a wholesale restructuring of its electoral landscape.
One underplayed interpretation of the Conservatives’ success at the 2019 General Election is as a reaction to this surplus of politics. The pledge to “Get Brexit Done” was a promise to voters to make politics go away; to get breathless reporting of Parliamentary votes off the drive-time radio news bulletins. In contrast, the Labour and Liberal Democrat pledges for a second referendum were a pitch for more of the same. The marginal voter- bored of Brexit, of politics- voted accordingly.
For the Conservatives, the great “tragedy” of this electoral success is that it was followed by the pandemic. Instead of politics going away, for the past year it has been a constant in the nation’s lives.
While this was, at first, a positive for the Government- polling in the aftermath of the Prime Minister’s statement showed the Conservatives at above 50%- over the course of the Autumn both parties were effectively neck and neck in the polls. Recently, the vaccine rollout has seen the Tories pull ahead with consistent poll leads.
That the Conservatives’ vote share remains solid is a source of chagrin for their opponents. To many it’s unfathomable that voters in a country with over 120,000 coronavirus deaths can just shrug their shoulders. Yet supporters of the Government would point to the problems our European peers have faced, particularly in rolling out the vaccine, and argue that managing a pandemic is just difficult. Labour have to face a challenge that, rightly or wrongly, the voters that matter think they would have done as badly.
Similarly, while the recent bucket of allegations broadly labelled as “sleaze” are hardly good for the Government, they’re largely quite confusing, with many of them easily explained away with the phrase “there was a pandemic”. Pointing this out is not to suggest that “voters in the Red Wall” love sleaze, just as they love pies and Brexit, but that they are just not paying attention.
The fact is that the majority of voters haven’t changed their minds on party politics since the 2019 Election and have returned to the traditional rhythm of the British electoral system, paying little attention until the next General Election. The Government has largely built itself up a reservoir of goodwill amongst its voters by doing what it promised and “getting Brexit done”, and by getting vaccines into people’s arms and beginning to open up the economy.
This means we should treat tomorrow’s bumper crop of local, mayoral and devolved elections, the first real life test of public opinion since the General Election, with caution. There are decent reasons to doubt what these contests will really tell us.
Firstly, turnout for local elections is typically low and could well be suppressed even further by the impact of the coronavirus. This, combined with the vagaries of a highly localised first past the post system, means we are incredibly likely to see some odd local results driven by the votes of only the most motivated voters.
Because of the postponement of the 2020 elections, many of the seats up for grabs were last contested in 2016. Incumbent councillors remain frozen in aspic, fossilised remnants of a pre-referendum politics. We can naturally expect a great deal of churn in these seats due to changing electoral geography, without really learning anything new.
Similarly, a bunch of seats were last contested in 2017, which represented a nadir for Labour. It seems a given that they will improve their standing in these areas, regardless of the results elsewhere. It is also worth pointing out that the locals in May 2017 utterly failed to predict the result of the 2017 General Election, held just a month later.
Finally, with the devolved elections, arguably the most “interesting” set of elections taking place tomorrow are the mayoral elections. Given the favourable light in which the public views their local mayor, we shouldn’t be surprised that incumbents to do well. It may be that the Conservatives underperform in London and Labour underperform in the West Midlands and Teesside, but it is foolish to think that the story is just about the parties’ respective national standings. That there is no incumbent standing in the West of England is one reason I think it is the mayorality that is most likely to change hands.
Despite having little predictive value for understanding the next General Election, except in Scotland, these contests will define the political narrative of the next few months. For the Conservatives, their performance will be a judgement on the recent Downing Street scandals and their record in combatting the virus, for Labour it will be the first test of Keir Starmer’s nascent leadership. They won’t listen, but given the unengaged electorate, political commentators and politicians would be wise not to overfit the results of these elections- they should neither be a cause for complacency nor despondency.
In 2021, Britain is less a nation divided, more a nation uninterested.
What I’ve been reading
- Recently, I’ve become single-minded on the importance of economic growth in improving the world. This was the implicit point of my piece for Cap-X on “Iron Maiden Britain”. It’s a very boring right-liberal view, but one that has slipped out of UK politics- we can make things better by growing the pie. It was in this spirit I read Tyler Cowen’s excellent Stubborn Attachments, a short book making the intellectual argument for growth. Highly recommended
- Followers of my Twitter account will have seen me tweeting excerpts from the first volume of Charles Moore’s magisterial biography of Thatcher. Covering the period from her childhood to the Falklands war, the book is a fascinating, in depth portrayal of Thatcher. While Moore obviously wrote it from a position of great sympathy, it is no hagiography, dealing sensitively with her many flaws. We’ll never see anyone like her again.
- If you’re a fan of anything I write about, you will love this substack which deals primarily in the burgeoning field of “Deano Studies”. Highly recommended.