Labour on Course for Power: Five Takeaways From UK Elections

(Bloomberg) -- The governing Conservatives suffered heavy defeats in a set of local elections on Thursday, adding to the sense that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak will struggle to turn things around before a general election that he must hold within nine months.

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Keir Starmer’s opposition Labour Party made some eye-catching gains, taking control of councils in Thurrock, Hartlepool and Rushmoor, winning the mayoralty of York and North Yorkshire — which includes Sunak’s constituency — and emerging victorious in the Blackpool South parliamentary constituency on a huge swing from the Tories.

The Conservatives had lost 473 council seats by Saturday afternoon, almost half of the ones they were defending, while there were gains for Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and independent candidates. Here are five key takeaways from what we’ve seen:

1. Heavy Tories losses suggest polls are right

This set of election’s results were bad for the Tories by any measure, suggesting opinion polls showing Labour far ahead are broadly accurate and translating into real votes.

“It’s one of the Conservatives’ worst performances in 40 years of following local elections,” John Curtice, the polling guru and politics professor, told Bloomberg Radio.

One Tory official privately conceded that if the results are repeated at the general election, they imply a defeat not far from the scale of Tony Blair’s landslide Labour victory in 1997, which gave him a majority of 179 seats.

However one glimmer for Sunak came in the BBC’s projected national vote share putting Labour on 34% in a general election, and the Tories on 25%. While that’s still a 9-point deficit, it’s significantly lower than the 26-point lag in the latest YouGov poll. While Sky produced a similar projection, pollsters warned against extrapolating national results from local elections.

2 Even so, Sunak is safe as Tory leader for now

Right-wing Conservative rebels had seen these elections as their last chance of mounting a coup to replace Sunak before the general election. They have now given up on that, people involved in the discussions told Bloomberg.

The plotters had sought to strike if the Tories performed worse than already-low expectations. However, with Ben Houchen holding onto his Tees Valley mayoralty, and Labour failing to take a target council in Harlow in Essex, Tories would be unlikely to support a move to replace Sunak, one rebel said. Instead, Sunak’s internal critics would likely leave him to “own” a general election defeat, they suggested.

3. Labour is rebuilding its ‘red wall’ on path to power

There were plenty of signals that Labour is winning back the voters it needs to form a government.

It won the by-election in Blackpool on a 26% swing, reclaiming a bellwether seat in the so-called “red wall” of traditionally Labour areas which fell to the Tories in 2019. That’s the third-largest Tory-to-Labour shift since the World War II, putting Starmer firmly on course for Downing Street if replicated in a national vote.

The party also won the mayoral race in York and North Yorkshire, Sunak’s back yard, and took control of councils in areas that will be key general election battlegrounds. They included Milton Keynes, which turned red for the first time this century, Rushmoor — which it won for the first time ever, as well as Redditch and Thurrock.

Another win, in Hartlepool, was hugely symbolic for Starmer, who nearly resigned after Labour lost a by-election there in 2021.

4. Reform is a spoiler not a challenger

The rise in the polls over recent months of Reform UK has rattled the nerves of Tory MPs who see the right-wing party founded by Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage as a threat.

The Blackpool South result in particular suggested their concerns are well placed: reform UK came just 117 votes shy of beating the Tories into second place. However, it served only to eat into the Tory vote, and the governing party would have lost even with all of Reform’s votes. In council votes, Reform made little impact even in areas where it stood a full slate of candidates.

“Reform are not doing well, on any measure,” said politics professor Rob Ford, suggesting the party had proved to be a “paper tiger.” Reform’s performance may spark calls from within the party for Farage to return to front-line politics as its leader, something he has been coy about as he prioritizes his TV career and cheer-leading Donald Trump’s US presidential run.

5. Starmer’s Gaza stance is costing Labour votes

Friday’s results weren’t a clean sweep for Labour, in part because voters in some areas with large Muslim populations appeared to withhold support over the opposition party’s stance on the war in Gaza.

Starmer has faced criticism for taking months to call for a humanitarian cease-fire in Gaza and for appearing to back Israel’s “right” to cut off power and water from Gaza in an interview in October. He has since backed away from those remarks.

Support for Labour had fallen by eight percentage points since last year in wards where more than 10% of residents identify as Muslim, according to Curtice. Ford said the Green Party had been a “big beneficiary” in areas where Labour’s vote had suffered.

“We are being sent a message about Gaza and must listen, understand, and act,” former Tony Blair adviser and Labour strategist John McTernan said.

Still, Sadiq Khan’s strong performance in the London Mayoral election, in which the Labour incumbent increased his vote share over his previous victory in 2021, may put to rest concerns that Labour is suffering from its position on the Middle East.

--With assistance from Isabella Ward.

(Updates with results as of Saturday afternoon)

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