After Sunak’s First Electoral Test: Has the End of the Conservative Party’s Era Begun?

Murad Jandali | a year ago




The ruling Conservative Party in Britain suffered a resounding defeat in the local council elections, after recording large losses in the number of seats, especially in the traditional strongholds affiliated with the right, which puts its era in the wind.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak considered the results disappointing for his ruling party, while Labour leader Keir Starmer seized the moment to announce that the country is on its way to a Labour majority government after the next general election; especially as it has become the largest party in the local government for the first time in more than 20 years.

The resounding result rang alarm bells in the Conservative Party, amid a defeat that may have outweighed the refraction of the 1995 elections, which then led the party to an electoral massacre in the general elections held two years later, and brought Labour Tony Blair to power in 1997, according to what was reported by Sky News.

On the other hand, observers saw that the results achieved by the Labour Party were the result of the punitive or tactical vote carried out by a number of voters in circles known for their loyalty to the Conservative Party, outraged by the living conditions in the country and the government’s inability to confront inflation.


Heavy Losses

The Conservative Party, led by Rishi Sunak, lost a third of the seats it was competing to preserve in the local elections that took place across England on May 4, 2023, which included 230 local councils.

Before the election, the top chief of the Conservative Party had predicted heavy losses after 13 years in power.

According to the final results of this week’s local elections, the Tories incurred huge losses estimated at 1,064 seats in local councils, bringing their total number of seats to 2,296 (28.5% of the total seats).

On the other hand, the Labour, Liberal Democrat, and Green parties benefited from this decline.

The Labour was able to achieve a net gain of 536 seats, thus controlling 2,674 seats (33.3% of the total seats).

The Liberal Democrats also controlled 407 additional seats, bringing their total number of seats to 1,628 (20.2% of the total seats).

Likewise, the Greens managed to win an additional 241 seats, bringing it to 481 seats (6% of the total seats).

As for the number of councils that parties control by a majority: The Labour Party was able to control 71 councils (31% of the total councils), then the Conservative Party with a total of 33 councils (14.4%), then the Liberal Democratic Party with a total of 29 councils (12.7%), while there were 91 councils in which none of the British parties controlled the majority.

Surprisingly, Labour made significant gains at the expense of the Tories in the North of England and the Midlands, as well as taking over southern councils such as Plymouth, Swindon, Dover, and Medway.

Labour also had surprising inroads in Hertsmere, in Hertfordshire, home to Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden, as the Tories completely lost control of the council. Also in Stoke-on-Trent, which is known as the Brexit capital, 69% of its voters voted in favor of leaving the European Union in 2016.

Among the important points demonstrated by these elections is also the return of the red wall in the north of the country, which has been a stronghold of the Labour Party for decades. It is the wall that collapsed in the 2019 general election and voted for the Conservative Party, giving it an absolute majority in Parliament.

At the time, observers described what happened as a punitive vote against the Labour Party due to the vagueness of its position on Brexit. However, the recent results of the elections showed that the red wall has been re-formed, which will withdraw many seats from the hands of the conservatives in the next general elections.

All that has been achieved in recent elections has prompted Labour and its supporters to celebrate as the largest party in local government, which has not happened since the days of Tony Blair in 2002.

On the eve of the coronation of King Charles III, the Conservatives also lost Windsor and Maidenhead, the local council of former Prime Minister Theresa May, and Stratford-upon-Avon, the seat of former chancellor Nadhim Zahawi, to the Liberal Democrats.

The BBC’s projected national share of the vote put Labour at 35%, the Conservatives at 26% and the Lib Dems at 20%, while other parties were at 19%—with estimates extrapolated from the England-only local results.

This is the first time that the difference in votes has reached 9 points between the Labour Party and the Conservative Party since 2010, the year in which the Labour lost power and has not yet returned to it.


Conservative Policies

After the great defeat suffered by the party, the Tories exchanged accusations among themselves as to the cause of these disappointing results.

Labour took control of the Swindon council for the first time in 20 years, defeated Conservative council leader David Renard blamed the cost of living and the government’s performance in the past 12 months for his party’s troubles locally.

The conservative Mayor of Tees Valley, Ben Houchen, who will run in the elections next year, also explained that the poor performance of the Conservative Party was partly a result of the turmoil that occurred during the last period, noting the success of the Labour in making these elections a referendum on the performance of the government.

On her part, the Conservative Culture Secretary Karen Bradley told Sky News that people are angry and frustrated with the government, and find the high cost of living difficult.

But she blamed the Tories’ long tenure in government, the impact of the pandemic, and the fallout from the Ukraine war on the poor electoral performance, rather than Sunak and his policies.

Commenting on Sky News, PM Rishi Sunak said it was always frustrating to lose hard-working advisers, reiterating his commitment to his national policies on the economy, health, and combating illegal immigration.

Sunak pledged to move forward with attention to people’s priorities, including halving the inflation rate, which exceeded 10%, resuming economic growth, and stopping migrant boats from the French coast.

In turn, Labour Party Chairman Keir Starmer said that his party is on track to win a majority in the upcoming general elections, indicating that his party is confident that it can advance by 8 points over its closest competitors in the elections.

Shabana Mahmood, the Labour MP for Birmingham, who is the party’s election campaign coordinator, told Sky News: “The Tories have destroyed the economy and created a cost-of-living crisis, and they don’t know how to fix that. Tonight was a disaster for Rishi Sunak, because the voters are punishing him for the failure of the party.”

On his part, the Liberal Democrats leader Ed Davey expressed his happiness, praising the blow to the conservative blue wall, and referring to a group of parliamentary constituencies in southern England that traditionally vote for the Tories but have opposed Brexit.


Gains and Losses

The recent local elections are of additional importance because they precede the scheduled general elections after a year and a half at the latest.

It was also the first electoral test for Rishi Sunak, through which he was supposed to prove his leadership abilities and the success of his political and economic vision to restore the party’s standing and voter confidence in it.

However, the results revealed the failure of his vision and the loss of the Conservative Party’s credibility and ability to persuade amid the worst economic crisis the country has witnessed in decades, which portends more danger to the Sunak government and makes it difficult to reach the next general elections.

As well as, criticism has poured directly on Sunak, as what sparked his greatest concern is the prominent voices supporting former PM Boris Johnson, who see the man as the party’s trump card. They returned to accusing Sunak of being primarily responsible for Johnson’s exit from the party’s leadership when he decided to resign from his post as Treasury Secretary.

The results also reflected the general mood of millions of voters tired of successive conservative governments for 13 years, but at the same time confused about their feelings towards Labour and its ability to renew and innovate and provide alternative solutions and plans.

Local election data indicated that the Conservative Party’s share decreased by 19 points from the general elections in 2019, while the Labour Party’s outcome did not change, meaning that the only thing that changed in the equation was the decline in the ruling party’s popularity and the erosion of its spheres of influence.

The same data also indicated that support for the Tories has decreased since the local elections in 2022 by four points, while the amount of support has not changed significantly for Labour.

It is noteworthy that the responsibilities that Sunak faces today seem more impossible than in the past. In addition to the hostility with which he faced party hardliners when he came to Downing Street last October, today he faces the rebellion of millions of voters against him and his government’s policies.

On the other hand, these elections, with their current results, represent a valuable opportunity for the Labour to test its capabilities, develop its electoral campaign, and invest in this victory; knowing that Starmer’s advisors announced that the results of this week will not change his strategy for the next 18 months, that is, for the date of the general elections.

However, some experts still doubt the ability of the opposition party to form a majority government after the upcoming elections.

Polling expert Michael Thrasher told Sky News that, based on the results of the recent local elections, Labour is expected to win the next election by around 8 points, which is not enough to form a majority government.

He added that the overall result of the elections indicates that the Labour Party has become the largest party but in a hung parliament.

John Curtice, Professor of Politics at the University of Strathclyde, told the BBC that a Labour lead of more than 10 points would bode well for victory in the general election.

“Before they came to power in 1997 and 2010, both Labour Tony Blair and Conservative David Cameron achieved success of more than 10 points in the local elections that preceded the legislative ballot,” he added.

Professor John Bryson, a political expert at the University of Birmingham, said the local elections should not be seen as an indication of voter behavior in future general elections, according to Xinhua.

He added that no political party in the country currently has a viable strategy to support sustainable growth and tackle the structural fiscal deficit, which Britain has been suffering from for a very long time.

On his part, political researcher Kamal Hawash explained in a statement to Al-Estiklal that “the recent elections focus on local issues for the British, but it is considered a preliminary test to measure the orientations of internal public opinion before the next general elections, despite the different types of issues concerned by the nature of the competitions taking place between them in the two electoral processes.”

“Sunak’s government and party are facing popular discontent and anger, and it cannot be overlooked that the semi-final results of the elections and the losses suffered by the Tories will put many pressures on Sunak,” he added.

“Accordingly, Sunak will have to take a series of decisions that will strengthen his party’s position during the upcoming elections and overcome the repercussions of the current local elections,” he said.

Mr. Hawash concluded by saying: “Undoubtedly, these elections gave the Labour a stronger push to prepare for the upcoming general elections. As it has a greater chance of returning to the head of government next year, taking advantage of the internal and external challenges facing the Conservative Party, which caused its resounding loss recently.”