With Parliament having gone again into recess after two weeks of being dominated by Brexit debate and position papers (or their delay), we escape the Westminster bubble to look at the work of the Metro Mayors.
Although somewhat less headline grabbing, the six new leaders have been working away quietly in the background since their election four months ago; appointing their top teams and implementing real policy change.
The Mayors received a brief glimpse in the spotlight when Philip Hammond went on a recent tour of the northern contingent meeting the Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham, Liverpool’s Steve Rotherham and the Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen for the first time since their elections.
The Chancellor’s visit was part of the Government’s effort to rebut criticism that it has downgraded the Northern Powerhouse as he sought to emphasise the Government’s support for increasing productivity in the region, something that he said was even more important in light of Brexit.
Looking at the total number of ministerial meetings the Mayors had in their first 100 days, the Conservative Party’s golden boy, Andy Street, was miles ahead at 15, compared to the others who averaged just under 5 each.
In their first 100 days:
Cambridge and Peterborough
Liverpool City Region
West of England
Investment in skills has been a common theme in the Mayors’ initial policy action. Since taking office, all Mayors have launched dedicated new funded employment schemes, apprenticeships programmes or wider adult skills investment.
Housing has also been a prominent area of action. Steve Palmer has announced £4.65m in grant funding for 11 developments, Ben Houchen has established a Mayoral land commission to support his pledge for a new garden village, Andy Street has outlined a plan to unlock land for new housing developments and Andy Burnham has pledged more funds to tackle homelessness.
Whilst all Mayors have similarly been pursuing improvements in local connectivity, this has been particularly prevalent in the north, where at a transport summit in Leeds, a new ‘Council of the North’ was called for to demand a fair funding deal from the Government to help rebalance the economy and ensure the Government honours the promises it has already made on improving rail infrastructure. This comes as the Northern Powerhouse Partnership (headed by its architect, George Osborne) launched its campaign for Northern Powerhouse Rail; a plan to bring seven million more people within a 90 minute journey time of leading northern cities.
Following the appointment of their teams, the gender imbalance has attracted criticism.
The gender issue stems from the fact that the constitution of Combined Authorities (which gives Mayors their powers) requires that portfolio holder positions are given to its members. As a recent LGA report found, councils need some 12,000 more women councillors to close the gender gap, with only 17% of council leaders female.
This means that of the Mayor’s appointed Deputy Mayors (usually a council leader of a constituent authority), only Andy Burnham has appointed a female.
In his manifesto, Burnham uniquely committed to address the huge gender imbalance in the combined authority. The authority’s revised constitution, agreed at the end of June, now requires cabinet members to appoint a deputy of a different gender.
Steve Rotherham has also spoken out about the problem and has since made further, female appointments including a ‘Fairness Tsar’ in the form of the TUC Regional Secretary, Lynn Collins.
Focusing on business, in addition to allocating key roles to the leaders of the seven metropolitan authorities that make up the West Midlands Combined Authority, Andy Street has also proposed a Business Advisory Group made up of representatives from the Chambers of Commerce, CBI and Institute of Directors. He has highlighted how important he thinks it is to hear the “voice of business” on the WMCA as Brexit negotiations get underway (unsurprising given his former role as John Lewis MD). The CBI has lobbied all of the Mayors to set up such groups but so far Street is the only one to have pledged to do so. Despite his focus on housing and regeneration and skills and productivity, at the time of writing, Street has yet to appoint strategic directors in these areas.
Whilst the Mayors have been progressing policy for their respective areas, the LGA finds it has been over 18 months since any new devolution deals were agreed, despite many areas being keen to press forward with negotiations.
With the Prime Minister’s former advisers Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill reported to have repeatedly blocked progress in this area, it is likely that we may see a return to the devolution agenda in the coming months with Yorkshire the main focus of attention.
After the first 4 weeks of the new Parliament who are the keenest new MPs?
Analysis of the number of debates an MP has spoken in and the number of written and oral questions answered give an early insight into who are the most active new MPs in this Parliament.
Ben Lake (Plaid Cymru; Ceredigion) and David Linden (SNP; Glasgow East) lead the scoring in the number of written questions, with 43 and 40 respectively. Lake’s hyperactivity in the House can be explained by his far-reaching responsibilities as his party’s spokesperson for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Education, Skills, Health, Communities and Local Government, Culture, Media and Sport and Constitutional Affairs.
Linden, who has experience working for the SNP in Holyrood, Brussels and Westminster, represents some of the most deprived neighbourhoods in the UK in his Glasgow East constituency. The levels of deprivation experienced by his constituents help to explain his activity in questioning the DWP on child poverty, the Carers Allowance and social security.
The two MPs are aged just 24 and 27, though their similarities do not end here. Lake holds a very fragile majority of 104 whilst the 12.1% swing to Labour in Glasgow East gave Linden a majority of just 75 votes. However, disparity exists between the two in terms of the number of oral questions asked with Lake only having made 3 spoken contributions compared to Linden’s 25.
The Labour MP, Luke Pollard, whose Plymouth Sutton and Devonport constituency represents an island of red in an otherwise blue sea in the South West, has already spoken in 13 debates and received a healthy 27 answers to written questions. Improving transport to and around the South West, raising the issue of autism, and standing firmly against defence cuts to the Royal Navy are all topics in which he has shown particular interest.
The Conservative Party duo of Rachel Maclean (Redditch) and Vicky Ford (Chelmsford) rank as the highest in terms of the number of debates spoken in with 15 and 19 contributions respectively. ‘Redditch Rachel’, as her twitter handle reads, can be expected to take particular interest in issues affecting young people throughout the course of the Parliament. As part of a career helping young people she arrived as an MP having started her charity, Skilled and Ready, which aims to link the skills needed by local employers to the school curriculum.
Ford, drawing upon her 8 years of experience as a Member of the European Parliament, has wasted no time in engaging in debate in her new workplace having been the first of the 2017 intake to make her maiden speech. Notably in 2016, Ford was ranked as one of the top ten most influential members of the European Parliament by Politico Europe, particularly for her work on digital policy.
Not to be forgotten, the Liberal Democrats can also boast of having one the most active new MPs. Layla Moran, who wrestled Oxford West and Abingdon from the Conservative Nicola Blackwood, is another MP who has a narrow margin of victory hanging over her head at 816. The first Member of Parliament of Palestinian descent is expected to continue her early activity, especially as she is the Education spokesperson for her party in the Commons.
Activity is not necessarily a measurement of talent or promise for the future. Although having no written answers and speaking in just 3 debates, the MP already being highlighted as the first amongst equals and even talked about as a potential future Leader of their party is Kemi Badenoch (Conservative, Saffron Waldon). She has received praise from a number of commentators, notably Fraser Nelson of the Spectator, the publication for which Badenoch was Head of Digital, who said “she’s a rare combination: an original thinker, a robust debater and someone who defies all kinds of caricatures”.
These are still early days and some future leading lights may just be learning their role and biding their time before emerging as the stars of the 2017 intake.
The first sign of trouble for the Tories came just 20 minutes after Theresa May had launched her manifesto in our backyard of West Yorkshire. There was a phone in on Radio Leeds, which attracts an older than average audience, and caller after caller expressed concern that they might be losing their heating allowance. Although the presenter fairly pointed out that it would be means tested and was designed to target wealthier people, nonetheless, the anxiety that this had aroused was obvious, and this just minutes after the announcement.
It proved the stupidity of announcing half a policy with no figures to reassure those who were probably in no danger of having their allowance taken away.
This concern was immediately reflected on the doorstep alongside great unhappiness and anxiety that people would lose their home to pay for social care. Again, the headline was what cut through and not the detail, but that is elementary political communication. Despite the quick U turn, the damage was done and many votes from traditional supporters were lost.
It is true that before this, it was not uncommon for people, even previously habitual Labour voters, to say that they liked Theresa May. She did indeed appear strong and stable, they said. Not once was this heard after the social care debacle. Her reputation was destroyed overnight.
A further damaging pledge was to have a vote in Government time and on a Government Bill on foxhunting. The initial pledge came in response to a question asked by a reporter when May was in West Yorkshire (ironically in the constituency of an MP passionately opposed to fox hunting). For once May gave a direct answer, that there would be a vote. It should have been foreseen that this would be translated on the doorstep as the Tories would bring back foxhunting, which is exactly how it was seen, being mentioned by a surprising number of people and causing countless lost votes.
It is not just on policy that the Conservatives made mistakes. In line with the digital age, elections have become more scientific, making use of the increasingly huge amount of marketing and online data that is available about us all. This is used to target people with letters from the party leaders. Conservative headquarters took this to a new level and were too clever by half. Constituencies were sent lists of specific voters to be targeted and directions that only these should be canvassed on pain of recriminations if this was ignored.
Many Conservative Associations have only a very small number of people who can be called on to go and knock on doors. It is vital to use this resource as efficiently as possible to get round as many voters as possible to identify your supporters so you can urge them to go and vote on polling day. The result of the Conservative campaign approach was that hours of canvassing time was wasted by volunteers standing around trying to find individual houses and walking past all the other houses which went unapproached to only seek out the designated targets. It was all the more galling for volunteers to find when they got there that many of these supposed likely Conservative voters were lifelong Labour or even Lib Dem voters. This inaccurate targeting showed up on polling day when many of those being ‘knocked up’ were indeed going to vote, but not for Theresa May.
It was an incredibly inefficient use of man and women power.
What made it worse was that it was clear early on that there were people switching from Labour to the Conservatives, mostly older and lower income voters. This presented an opportunity for the Conservatives to move into areas where they may not usually gain support and probably had been rarely seen during elections. A canvasser coming to your door can be that last incentive to change your voting habit, particularly if it’s the first time a Conservative has bothered to turn up in your street. If instead of being selective, every house in a street was canvassed, not only would the data on polling day have been much more accurate, but quite a few more voters might have made the switch.
There were other reasons why a 20% plus poll lead was reduced to an inconclusive 2.4% vote lead including an over-reliance on negative campaigning against Jeremy Corbyn, concern over the NHS and less than inspiring performances from the Prime Minister.
That is of course over-laid with the positive reasons that attracted an increase in the number of people voting Labour, but without the self-inflicted harm by the Conservatives, they would not have been enough to prevent May increasing her majority.
With a highly predictable result many would expect the political analysis of GE2017 to have already run dry, so the political commentators would have been relieved to have so much material from the local elections to chew over.
The story was of course of a comprehensive Conservative victory. They took control of 11 more councils across the country, gained 563 councillors, won four of the six mayoral contests and all but wiped out UKIP. The Liberal Democrats fightback proved to be limited and, as expected by many, Labour felt the ricochet of the national opinion polls losing 382 councillors.
The big question is what do they tell us about what to expect on 8th June?
First comes the caveat that the turnout was much lower than it should be for the General Election. Turnout for the council elections was about average across the board at around 30%. The mayoral elections don’t seem to have inspired people to come out in huge numbers with the turnout varying from 21% in Tees Valley to 33% in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough. There were reports from canvassers of a lack of awareness but also of some not seeing the point of the whole institution. There were even some who, when pressed to go and vote on polling day, thought that the election was on 8th June.
This could presage a low turnout at the general election if people consider the outcome is a forgone conclusion combined with disillusioned Labour voters possibly choosing to stay at home.
Overall the total vote share diminished Theresa May’s poll lead of around 19 points to 11, although still enough for a very comfortable majority.
Delve a little deeper and there are some interesting results across the key battlegrounds of the North which indicate a mixed picture for the General Election.
In terms of individual results, the Conservatives took control of Derbyshire County Council with 37 seats to Labours 24. At first glance this may not seem significant as the Conservatives held control up until 2013 and in the 11 constituencies that make up Derbyshire, 7 are Conservative. In one of the remaining Labour seats, NE Derbyshire which the Party has represented at Westminster since 1935, though, more people voted Tory (44%) than Labour (40%). Given the majority in 2015 had fallen to 1,883, it looks like Derby South, Chesterfield and Dennis Skinner’s seat may be the only red ones left in the county.
Across the border in Nottinghamshire, Tories won control of the county council with a vote share of 38.1% compared with Labour’s 34.5%.
In the County’s most marginal Labour seat of Gedling, Labour won a very slim majority of the vote share with 43.9% compared to 42.4% for the Conservatives, which represented a large 13.7 points increase for them. With a majority of 2,986, the former MP, Vernon Coaker, will be hoping that this momentum can be halted.
There was little joy for the Tories in the mayoral results in Greater Manchester and Liverpool City Region. On a day when the Tories seemed to be challenging Labour’s hegemony in the North, Manchester held firm as a Labour redoubt with no sign of a Tory revival with them winning only 6 out of the 215 wards. Even in Bury North, won by the Tories in 2015 by 378 votes, Labour secured a 23 points lead and in Bolton North East, also won by the Conservatives in 2015 with a 4,377 majority, there was a 29 points lead for Andy Burnham.
The low turnout and the fact that people were voting for a high profile individual will have skewed the results to the extent that to take them as an indicator of Labour’s potential success on June 8th would be misleading and overly optimistic.
In Tees Valley, Ben Houchen’s win is a different story. A councillor rather than an MP and a Conservative, rather than Labour in a Combined Authority dominated by Labour politicians, Houchen’s win will without doubt raise concerns amongst Labour candidates across the region. This will especially be the case in Labour held Darlington where more people voted Conservative than Labour (42% to 33%) leaving Jenny Chapman on a 3,158 majority with a reason to feel nervous.
Just from these snapshots it is apparent that although there is definitely a tide which is sweeping UKIP away to the benefit of the Conservatives and encouraging former traditional Labour voters to switch to support Theresa May, it is not everywhere. There will likely be some dramatic results on 8th June but it is unlikely to be the wholesale conversion of all traditional Labour areas to the Tories. There are still enough people in the North for whom voting Tory is anathema.
Whatever the outcome, something can be guaranteed, the media coverage will be constant, the campaigners will be at our doors and David Dimbleby will have bought a new suit.
Amidst all the frenzy of the General Election campaign starting, it is easy to forget that in many parts of the country voters will go to the polls on 4th May.
Almost 5,000 council seats will be up for grabs across England, Wales and Scotland, along with 6 new directly elected metro mayors with enhanced powers.
It is more usual for local elections and a general election to be held on the same day. Having the local elections a month before polling day is likely to have two impacts. One will be that with so much focus on the national scene, people are less likely to vote on local issues and will vote the same way as they intend to in the General Election. The second will be to act as a very direct test of political opinion, more effective than the polls, and may affect the way people vote at the general.
For Labour, the predictions look grim with suggestions that across Britain they could lose up to 200 council seats including around 100 seats in the once electorally safe Wales. To add to the misery, John Curtice of Strathclyde University has suggested Labour might lose control of the four councils it currently holds in Scotland as well.
Council defeats on the scale predicted would sap morale still further from a party in a weaker position than it was even under Michael Foot. It could dispirit some Labour voters to the extent that they do not bother to turn out to vote on 8th June.
Although the results may confirm what the polls indicate, that Jeremy Corbyn is a liability who needs to go, for many in the party the tactic is to sit and wait so that Corbyn is firmly able to ‘own’ any potential defeat.
For the Conservatives, increases in the number of council seats on a significant scale would undoubtedly prove a boost to the General Election campaign for members and candidates across the country. But don’t expect huge celebrations from Theresa May, who will want to dampen any suggestion that her path back to Downing Street is signed, sealed and practically delivered already. She will want to avoid giving any impression of complacency.
For the Lib Dems, who have made steady progress in council by-elections since 2015, it is not necessarily how many council seats they win on 4th May but where they win them. Eyes therefore should be turned to counties such as Devon, Somerset and Cornwall to establish if the party can realistically expect to regain Parliamentary seats in what was once its heartland.
UKIP meanwhile now battles for relevance. The last time these seats were contested the party increased the number of council seats it held by 139. This time they are fielding fewer candidates (contesting just 48% of council seats this compared to the 73% of seats they stood in four years ago) and the fear for them will be that a bad result will only encourage supporters to desert the party at the general and switch, probably predominantly to the Conservatives, or revert, where applicable, to being non-voters.
Whatever happens, expect much more media commentary on the local elections than ever before and possibly a high turnout with the possibility that some people think this is the General Election.
With just weeks to go before the notification to trigger Article 50 is expected, the official line from the EU institutions is that plans and staff are in place and Brussels and the EU27 are prepared. The EU Commission has a set of negotiation scenarios primed and believes that the EU will enjoy a home-field advantage as talks commence in Brussels. Publicly, all three institutions, the Commission, Council and Parliament, as well as the 27 other member states are firm that they have a joint position on how Brexit should unfold and what could be offered to the UK.
Yet, how long this line will hold remains to be seen. The novelty and multitude of actors on the EU side leaves much uncertainty remaining about how exactly the Article 50 process will unfold, and national political leaders at times, perhaps understandably considering major forthcoming elections in the Netherlands, France Germany, appear more focused on pleasing domestic audiences than reaching a European agreement.
Michel Barnier, heading up the technical negotiations from the Commission, will face additional hurdles as he tries to lead the EU in the divorce proceedings compared with his opposite number, the Brexit Secretary David Davis. Mr Barnier’s mandate from the EU Heads of States, to be received during a special summit in April 2017, won’t prevent him having to regularly report back to ministers and political leaders for guidance and coordination whilst navigating the mine-field of 27 national interests.
From informal meetings and sources, we know that much of Mr Barnier’s initial focus will rest on agreeing the UK’s financial commitments and securing citizens’ rights. On the former, Mrs May’s spokesperson has confirmed that the final number will be up for discussion in formal talks, whilst on the latter issue, the British have similarly made clear their desire to secure reciprocal status. Failure to date on this front could hint at differences already beginning to show, not between Britain and the EU Commission, but among the Commission and some Member States.
What also appears clear from statements made already is that the priority in Brussels after the notification of Article 50 will be on securing key terms of the divorce before any talks on a future trade deal take place. Here, though, London’s approach to date seems to be to ignore this. Similarly, on timeframes, Mr Barnier perceives Mrs May’s 2 year deadline to be unrealistic, whilst Jean-Claude Juncker has said: “I do not think…we will succeed within 24 months to clear up the arrangements for Britain’s exit from the EU and to (forge) the whole relationship between Britain and the European continent”. Both the UK government and UK companies might do well to prepare for the talks to take longer before any future trade relationships are agreed.
The difficult relation
And then there is also the EU Parliament, which while nominally only having a final yes-or-no vote on the deal, will be closely involved in the process to ensure that a final agreement is passed with MEPs. The Parliament has designated the extreme pro-Europe, Belgium Liberal Guy Verhofstadt as its lead negotiator. He will be supported by a group of experienced MEPs to provide the views of their respective political groups, and political group chairs and Committees will have input to ensure that the Parliament’s view is reflected in the EU Commission’s negotiation approach. This leaves plenty of room for misunderstandings, political maneuvering and general dissent within the EU, and one does not have to look far to find it. Perhaps the words of the influential German MEP Manfred Weber most clearly demonstrate that the EU’s biggest challenge in this divorce may just come from within:
“Frankly speaking there is a mandate from the European Commission for Michel Barnier, but not a mandate from the European Parliament … When I have a look on the content and at the topics on the table, for me it is still a mission impossible ahead of us that we can manage this. This will create a lot of damage, especially for the Brits for sure”.
With the prime political focus on triggering Article 50 it might be easy to forget that there are other important events in 2017 that could shape British politics. Here are PAC’s early ‘ones to watch’:
- Copeland by-election, date not yet known.
After the announced resignation of Jamie Reed MP (Labour), Copeland is the focus of the first by-election to be fought in a Labour/Conservative marginal since Jeremy Corbyn became Leader.
In normal times, this contest would not arouse much interest. An easy win would be expected for the Opposition with it being a generally working-class constituency, six hours away from London that has been held by Labour for nearly a century. The NHS, a ‘Labour issue’, is also set to be a focal point due to the row in the constituency about plans to downgrade maternity services at the West Cumberland hospital. Not to mention, no government has gained a seat in a by-election since 1982.
These are not normal times and it is quite possible the Conservatives might win. Why? Well, beyond the facts that Mr Reed’s 2015 majority was small (2,564) and 62% of voters in the constituency voted to leave the EU, the Labour Party’s recent performances in by-elections in December 2016 laid bare the electoral weaknesses that polls have been reporting.
In Richmond Park its share of the vote fell from 12.3% in 2015 to 3.7%, and in Sleaford they slipped from second in 2015 to fourth. Jeremy Corbyn’s previously stated opposition to nuclear power, a key industry in Copeland, might also influence the result and the Tories are already milking this for all its worth.
Not to forget that UKIP’s new leader, Paul Nuttall, will be seeking an early demonstration of his plan to grab northern Labour heartlands which could further weaken Labour’s chances of retaining the seat. Certainly if they do lose it, there will once again be serious recriminations within the Labour Party.
- Local Government Elections in May.
These elections, which will predominantly taking place for county councils, will be considered for what they can further tell us about the ongoing state of the parties, especially given the ever present speculation about a ‘snap’ early election. They will be the first widespread test of Theresa May and Paul Nuttall’s leaderships, as well as Corbyn mark 2, and will provide insight into whether the current dire polling for Labour is reflected by voting intention. Claims about (1) a Lib Dem resurgence and, (2) the threat UKIP poses to Labour’s vote in the North, will also be put to the test. However, keep in mind the expected, traditional anti-Government swing in local elections.
- Mayoral Elections in May.
The first ‘metro mayors’ will be elected across 6 combined local authorities as part of devolution deals. In most of these contests, such as in Greater Manchester where Andy Burnham MP is the Labour candidate and the Party control most of the councils and Liverpool City Region where Steve Rotherham MP is standing, positive results for the Labour Party are expected. Probably the most interesting result will be in the West Midlands where the former Chief Executive of John Lewis will be hoping to win for the Tories in a more marginal contest.
Though, considering Sadiq Khan’s victory in the London mayoral election in 2016, equating Labour victories in these more cosmopolitan areas with support for the national party may be a mistake.
- Election of the UNITE Leader on 28th April.
Triggered by the resignation of the current leader Len McClusky, this election is being billed as having wider significance in the ongoing ideological battle for control of the Labour Party.
Mr McClusky is aiming to win a third term as General Secretary to keep him in post for the 2020 election. He is a close personal friend of Mr Corbyn and has offered ongoing and financial support. Gerard Coyne is the more moderate/centrist candidate. Those supporting him from within the Parliamentary Labour Party have been accused by Mr McClusky of desiring a return to a Blairite doctrine.
The contest is being considered a potential ‘game changer’ and a fight for the future of the Labour Party. Unite’s significant political and financial involvement, (their executives vote on Labour’s national executive committee and they are the Party’s biggest donor), means the result of the election could serve to either entrench Corbyn as Labour’s Leader for the 2020 election or increase his vulnerability to further attempted coups.
Date for the diary: 8th March, Philip Hammond’s first, and last, spring Budget.
1. Accept that Brexit is a reality
The Prime Minister has committed to it and charged three Brexit supporting MPs to deliver it. The European Commission, European Parliament and European Council have all said there is no going back. The people were given their say and the majority voted to leave. There are those that will try and throw a spanner in the works, but momentum is growing – even if departure is still a little way off. Anger is subsiding (a little) and a few rays of optimism and acceptance among many people about new trade deals are starting to appear.
2. Know your business and how it depends on the EU (or doesn’t)
The regulatory environment in which you operate might fundamentally change. It also may not. While you may be surrounded by uncertainty, you can at least be certain of your own business and where you are exposed to risk.
3. Have a strategy and be prepared
What is your overall strategic aim? Where do you want to be in 5 – 10 – 15 years’ time? Do you need the EU to deliver this or can you survive without? What are all the possible Brexit scenarios and how will they impact your strategy. With politics as it is right now, nothing should be discounted.
4. Do something about it
Negotiations have already started. UK, EU and Member State negotiators from all sides of the table are deciding what their priorities are, which key industries to protect or punish and what can be left to the bottom of the list to be horse-traded away. If your Company or sector relies on the EU regulations or markets as part of your business model, you will need to fight to make sure your industry is not left until last. There are opportunities as well as threats. Now is the time for first mover advantage.
This was written by our Brussels and Berlin based associates, IDA Group. Working with them we can identify your business needs and develop and deliver a strategy to ensure you are fully aware of all developments with Brexit and have input to the Government’s plans as well as to EU institutions and member governments.
“What is going on?” was the question from overseas governments of their diplomatic representatives observing the Conservative Party conference. The country that is seen to epitomise openness, tolerance and being outward looking suddenly seemed to be sending out messages through senior ministers that it was becoming inward looking, unwelcoming and intolerant.
Just as confusing were the messages coming out about the Conservative Party’s approach to business and the role of the state. The Party of small government and pro-business seemed to be having not so much a mid-life crisis but a complete change of positioning.
It is not surprising that foreign observers were left bemused.
There were two factors at play. One was a new leadership excerting its own brand of conservatism, something every party leader does when they first come to office. Although the type of conservatism practised often turns out to be different than that first espoused by a new leader. For example, David Cameron’s emphasis on the environment early in his tenure later became that “green crap”.
Second, is political gamesmanship. There is a huge opportunity for the Conservative Party to move in on the thousands of former Labour voters who feel completely alienated from the Party’s leadership. These political refugees come in two main groups, the liberal minded voter who sees the Tory party as reactionary, divisive and uncaring and those who have traditionally supported Labour as the party of the working man and woman, although on many issues they are well to the right of the party. Many of these have already been lost to UKIP but as that party also seems to be self-imploding and has lost its main raison d’etre, possibly this support is now also footloose.
The Conservatives might win over some of the first group with its promises of a fairer economy, social justice and more state intervention to bring this about. It will, however alienate them with strident language about immigration and pursuing a more closed Brexit.
It is the strident language about immigration on the other hand that will appeal to the second group of Labour voters, especially those that have already crossed the rubicon and made the break from Labour by voting UKIP. If on top of firm action to reduce immigration the Tories are seen to be genuinely helping those struggling to cope, maybe they could finally break away from the decades long perception that they just look after their own as the party of the rich.
Can the Tories ride two horses at once and appeal to both groups? Certainly the Conference was a good try.
The fallout from Brexit has caused shockwaves across the UK political parties with as many as four having leadership elections. Beneath this however, what has been the impact in terms of party support?
One of the most immediate impacts has been a surge in membership of the three oldest parties.
Labour’s increase has been the most dramatic. Even before the 48 hours window that was created to allow people to register to vote in the leadership election, the party had been enjoying an increase in membership as Momentum got to work to sign people up to protect Corbyn from a possible challenge and the new Save Labour organisation did likewise to get Corbyn out.
During the 48 hour registration period, 180,000 people registered as official supporters, more than the combined memberships of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties. This brings Labour Party membership to 540,000.
The Conservatives have also seen an increase of about 10% on their 150,000 members since the referendum. Most joined to get a vote in their leadership election; anecdotal evidence is that many were revengeful remainers who wanted to stop Boris Johnson becoming Leader. Unfortunately for them, they hadn’t researched Conservative Party rules which require six months’ membership before being eligible to vote to prevent such manipulation. What is striking is that most are not, as might be imagined, former Tories who having left to join UKIP were returning to the fold now that they have their objective, but people who have not been a member of any party.
For the Liberal Democrats the Brexit vote has been a lifeline. The membership of the party has increased by 10,000 (17%) probably encouraged by the stance taken by Tim Farron that the Party would remain pro-EU membership despite the verdict of the people. This surge in membership has been credited to young people. unhappy with the referendum result, joining a political party for the first time. More unusually, the Lib Dems have also claimed that a number of the new members are regretful leave voters who didn’t believe a Brexit vote would actually occur and were shocked by the immediate ramifications on business.
Although the opinion polls have fluctuated and been fairly meaningless since the referendum, now that there is a new Prime Minister and with Labour still in turmoil the latest poll giving the Conservatives 43% against 27% for Labour is not a surprise. The polling, if translated into seats at an election, would see Labour lose 46 seats and be its worst result since the SDP spilt vote in the 1983 election.
Since the election last year, for the smaller parties there has been no change with UKIP on 13% (12.6% at the election) and the Lib Dems on 8% (7.9%) whilst the Greens and SNP remain stable at 4% (taken across the UK).
An often neglected marker of party fortunes is the regular stream of council by-elections. Prior to the referendum most parties were holding steady including, surprisingly for a Government, the Conservatives. Since Brexit there has been more change with the main beneficiaries being the Lib Dems. They have totted up several victories taking seats from the Conservatives in Norfolk and Cornwall and also from Labour in London. It has recorded up to 33 percentage point increases in their share of the vote.
Graph by Britainelects