Scotland – and indeed much of England and Wales – was spared the joy of last week’s local elections. They are always a funny one. Literally no-one, apart from die-hard political geeks like me, cares. And make no mistake about how weird people like me are.
We’re the kind of people who stay up all night tracking and pondering every obscure ward result in Sunderland and go weak at the knees around Professor Sir John Curtice. When I did a breakfast event with him last year I was that star-struck, I didn’t even have the courage to ask for a selfie with him for fear of rejection – to put that in context, I got one with Idris Elba no problem. I know, discuss ...
When I was out campaigning around London most people weren’t in, refused to open the door, couldn’t be bothered or just didn’t care for politics. My favourite reaction was from a woman who huffed “Well I’m sick of Labour and I’ve had it up to here with that Tony Blair!” “Tony Blair’s not standing here and he’s no longer leading the Labour party – Jeremy Corbyn is.” “Oh! That’s right, okay, give me a leaflet and I’ll think about it.”
So, you guys north of the Border may have got away ‘scot free’ but you’ve ended up being the big winners from the local elections because you have the power to determine who will be our next Prime Minister. The results in the wee hours of Friday morning saw the Conservative spin machine go into hyper-drive. It was a shameful night for Labour they crowed and a lot of the media followed their lead. The Tory press operation has improved considerably since the last election and probably since the departure of Theresa May’s key advisers, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, known as the “evil twins”. It has got more confident on social media and it successfully jumped on the hubris of Momentum – the left-wing associates of Corbyn – to set an almost impossible bar for the Labour to meet.
Because Momentum gave it the big one about coming to slay the Tories in their crown jewel London councils of Wandsworth and Westminster, the Conservatives set that as the test for success for Labour on the night. It was always going to be tough for Labour to take these councils – which include Buckingham Palace for God’s sake – but unfortunately Labour’s expectation management spun out of control.
In politics – as in life – it’s always better to under-promise and over-deliver, not the other way round. So quelle surprise, Labour did not win these councils and everyone screamed “you losers!” and laughed and pointed at Corbyn, although Labour came pretty damn close, especially in Wandsworth – Thatcher’s favourite low-tax council.
But in politics, you don’t get points for how brilliantly you lost. It’s about getting past the line even if it’s just by a whisker. I was disappointed Labour did not perform well enough to demonstrate that it is on course for winning a majority at the next general election, but neither did the Tories.
So British politics is still in deadlock – both Labour and Conservative look like they would be neck-and-neck gaining around 35 per cent of the vote which looks like a hung parliament. Based on Friday’s results, a study for the BBC by John Curtice (swoon) showed that Labour would in fact be the largest party but would fall short of the majority needed to form a government.
It’s important to remember that a general election is very different from local ones. There is much more coverage, the leaders have more attention and visibility, big policy offers matter and crucially, more young people and minority groups turn out to vote. But let’s be honest. English politics is stuck.
Labour is cleaning up in the big cities and Corbyn appeals to young, metropolitan areas which are socially liberal and anti-Brexit, although Labour still holds traditional heartlands which voted to leave. The Tories are doing well in the satellite towns, the Shires, rural and coastal areas which tend to be older, more traditional and voted Leave – and of course the UKIP vote, which collapsed, largely went Tory.
It’s hard to see how these parties break this deadlock and advance on to the other’s territory successfully. The Tories are still seen as being for the rich, lack appeal for young people especially on the housing crisis and, post-Windrush, will have an even bigger problem attracting the ethnic minority vote. Corbyn is failing to connect with working-class voters who are obsessed with immigration and distrusted by older voters especially on foreign policy.
The Liberal Democrats (remember them?) displayed signs of life on Thursday winning back Richmond council, which is a strongly anti-Brexit part of London but any revival depends on how angry Remain voters are across the country and whether they will stick with Labour as they did in 2017.
So, this is why I’m afraid it’s down to you north of the Border. You hold the power. A small swing to the SNP in either direction could mean the difference between a Labour Prime Minister or a Tory one, so that means Corbyn or Jacob Rees Mogg the way things are going. I know, a man so old fashioned, he could have been dug up by Time Team could be your next Prime Minister. What a time to be alive! But in all seriousness, the battle for Scotland’s votes will be critical.
Labour is busy selecting their candidates for the next general election right now and hopes to build on the progress they made last year. There are potentially up to around 20 SNP seats which they think are there for the taking with the right people on offer. Although still rather unknown and a newcomer, Richard Leonard is seen as the right man precisely because he’s under the radar, a clean skin and Corbyn’s man. He can hold the fort in Scotland without competing with Corbyn and allow him to shine when he comes up to campaign in Scotland.
Labour UK-wide is the Corbyn show and Leonard is smart enough to know that. But the Tories will be hoping that Ruth Davidson comes back as soon as possible after becoming a mother as she too personally carries the party in Scotland and, of course, Sturgeon is still personally popular in Scotland, although incumbency brings grumbles aplenty.
But it will be fascinating how she plays her hand and the power she will ultimately wield to get what she wants – that second referendum on Scottish independence. If she gives Corbyn a deal in Westminster to prop him up, she will ask for a referendum in return.
And if Mhairi Black is right, then her wish will be Corbyn’s command. Strap yourselves in folks, and prepare for armies of politicians and journalists from England to come a wooing you for your vote. Maybe you guys didn’t escape after all…