A general election wipeout in waiting

Published by The i paper (6th May, 2024)

The mood was very tense as the votes were recounted in Coventry, then totted up in Sandwell. Then came the rumours, followed by the first pictures of celebrations on social media and – shortly before 9pm on Saturday – the sensational result. Labour had won the West Midlands mayoralty by a mere 1,508 votes to capture this sprawling region of 2.9 million people.

Yet despite the huge significance of this outcome for their parties, both the triumphant winner and dejected loser spoke with grace and courtesy at the podium, underlining that they were decent people who cared deeply about the area. This was politics at its best: dramatic and engaging, yet neither crass nor divisive.

What contrast to scenes earlier in the day in the capital when a Conservative loser who fought a nasty campaign grudgingly conceded to Sadiq Khan; even joke candidate Count Binface displayed more dignity in defeat. Once again, this Muslim Mayor of London had endured crude dog-whistle tactics from the Tories, yet talk of their surge in the suburbs turned out to be total nonsense as Khan cruised to a record third term with comparative comfort. Ironically, he was helped by the Government’s partisan imposition of first past the post.

Defeat for these two contrasting candidates – Andy Street in the West Midlands and Susan Hall in London – concluded an electoral catastrophe for the Tories. Barring any unpredictable “black swan” events, election results from Blackpool to Worthing suggest the Conservatives are on course for a general election wipeout. Despite Ben Houchen’s success in Tees Valley, they are on track to lose all his area’s parliamentary seats.

As the Liberal Democrats took second place nationally, Woking became the first council in true-blue Surrey without any Conservative councillors. Labour strategists were ecstatic to win the first contest for East Midlands mayor, since the area has 13 must-win seats. Labour even won the council encompassing Aldershot, an Army town that has never elected an MP from their party, symbolising how it has shifted from the dark years of Jeremy Corbyn to become trusted on defence.

There was fragmentation and splintering with smaller parties winning almost one in four votes. Reform fuelled Tory problems – although winning only two councillors, for all its relentless promotion on the BBC. The Liberal Democrats, despite lacklustre leadership and policy inertia, had a good result.The rise of the Greens showed they could be a thorn in the side of any future Labour government.

And yes, there were protest votes against Sir Keir Starmer over his botched response to Gaza. But Labour should win back many of these votes at the general election – even if claiming the country needs sweeping change while offering no radical solutions.

For there was one clear message across the country: voters desperately want to see the back of the Tories after 14 destructive and fractious years in Downing Street. The results show the failure of their drift into what they perceive to be populism, the party ditching any pretence of moderation or pragmatic conservatism after mutating into hard-right English nationalists following Brexit.

As the economy stagnates and public services struggle, ministers demonise people with disabilities on benefits and target transgender citizens. The Prime Minister pins his shrinking hopes of survival on “stopping the boats” by claiming Rwanda, one of the world’s most repulsive dictatorships, is a safe place to send asylum seekers – even as the United States accuses the brutal regime of bombing a Congolese refugee camp. Yet on the day before voters went to the polls, Home Office figures indicated 711 people crossed the Channel, the highest number detected on a single day this year.

They deserved this kicking since their performance and constant feuding has been pitiful. Yet even as results flooded in and hundreds of hard-working party stalwarts lost council posts, some architects of their collapse began pushing for another lurch right. An ally of the disgraced Boris Johnson, using language strikingly similar to the ex-prime minister, told one newspaper he was “like a coiled mamba, ready to strike”.

Simon Clarke, among the most devout followers of the toxic Liz Truss, flagged up the risks of Reform, a familiar tactic for pushing the party from the centre. Former home secretary Suella Braverman delivered the standard call for bigger tax cuts and longer jail sentences, along with a fresh attack on “transgender ideology”.

No doubt Rishi Sunak will continue to pander to these failures, fanatics, and flint-hearted misanthropes jostling for position in the shrivelled party likely to emerge from the post-election wreckage.

This politician – who came to public prominence at the start of the pandemic with a heartfelt warning that “we will be judged by our capacity for compassion” – should reflect deeply on these results. First he should ponder the loss in London after fighting a dire campaign founded on division, fear, racism and opposition to environmental measures, which was made worse by choosing such a weak and Brexiteer candidate in the capital.

Then he should look again at Street’s record in the West Midlands. Here was a man standing as a Tory Remainer in a Brexity and traditionally Labour area. He focused on boosting the region, building homes, and improving transport links during seven years as mayor. He took pride in diversity, writing in this paper how his last success was based on bringing people together “in a moderate, less partisan way” and was focused on “socially liberal matters”.

No wonder that he distanced himself from the party nationally, even campaigning in different colours – or that Starmer’s team has debated offering him a role. His brand of “moderate, inclusive, tolerant conservatism” focused on delivery came within an ace of beating Labour in their backyard. As he said, the message is clear: victory comes from the centre ground. Unfortunately, his party refuses to listen.

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