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Empire of Dirt

May 12th 2023

With the dust settled on the local elections, all eyes are fixed on this parliament’s next, final, electoral showdown: we are on the downward slope towards a General Election. How the outcome of the last poll affects each party’s planning for the next tells us something about what to expect from them over the next twelve months.

First, Labour. The locals have reassured the Labour Party that this government is as widely despised as opinion polling has implied. The Conservatives remain deeply unpopular and this translates into votes against them. A population that has woken up to the potential of tactical voting, as post-referendum Brits have, can very efficiently maximise hatred for a particular party or outcome. Where Labour was best placed to oust or stop Tories, voters voted for them. Where it was clearly others, others were backed.


Because, nationally, Labour is bound to be the biggest non-Tory party then efficient tactical voting makes it very much more likely that Labour forms the next government. And, because such a campaign depends on all the other parties running (essentially) on a ‘stop-the-Tories’ ticket in order to benefit, it would be very hard for them to bring down a minority Labour government - to usher in a Conservative return - should Starmer fall short of a majority.

What does all this mean for Labour strategy? Don’t frighten those angry horses. Yes, Labour will need a policy agenda to lay before the electorate (which it makes sense to frame through the ‘five national missions’) but it’s not actually necessary to create a grand programme that people can vote for in these political circumstances.

Enough people are already motivated to support Labour and other candidates in order to prevent a fifth Conservative term. What Starmer needs to do is to create enough of a manifesto to look serious and considered without putting his coalition of the dismayed off with any white elephants. So, no nationalising broadband ala Corbyn and no dementia tax ala May - nothing that gives opponents something big and polarising to latch onto. Caution may be in Starmer’s nature but, on the basis of the local results, it is also wise at this moment.

And for the Tories? There really was no good news last week. Spin it however you want. Pull out Liam Byrne’s tattered note as many times as you choose. Losing a thousand councillors and falling almost 10% behind at the ballot box is a horrendous result. When you realise that the tactical voting outlined above means you are losing to Labour in the Red Wall and the Lib Dems in the blue… Rishi Sunak is stuck between the frying pan and the fryer.

But hopeless as it looks, he’s got a year at least to go and he wants to turn it around. So what crumbs do the locals offer? Well, one outcome the PM is keen to lean into is that tactical voting makes Labour vulnerable to influence from the other, smaller parties. Remember Ed Miliband’s little face in Alex Salmond’s pocket? That’s the gist. Sunak is betting on voters getting spooked by the idea of the SNP or the Lib Dems backseat driving a minority Labour Government. His plan is that he delivers (kind of) on his five pledges and looks the public in the eye to warn them that a messy progressive mash-up will throw away the progress he has secured. Whether that works after… everything… well, who knows? But he needs a plan and this is the best (only) plan he has, for now.

There is a tendency in political commentary to elevate love over hate. That is understandable, human and decent. But in purely electoral terms it doesn’t matter that much if people vote for you because they love you or because they hate your opponents. The results on the night are the same either way. Hate might not be nice but it can be effective.