The Guardian view on the May elections: Labour did well, but not well enough | Editorial

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The council elections in England reveal that not all politics is local. On the doorstep, voters brought up the cost of living crisis and Boris Johnson being fined for breaking life-saving Covid rules. Mr Johnson knows the Conservatives did badly. But he hopes the party did not do badly enough for his Commons opponents to move against him. The Labour party did well. But perhaps not well enough to convincingly herald an English resurgence. Instead, voters gave their support to smaller parties that offered any sort of alternative.

Sir Keir Starmer hailed totemic victories in London – notably the Tory strongholds of Wandsworth and Westminster – as a “turning point” for Labour. In left-behind places such as Carlisle, set in pastoral Cumberland, and Rossendale, Sir Keir won surprising victories. However, large parts of England outside the capital failed to turn for Labour. At the time of writing, the one-point advance in Labour’s vote share in London was accompanied by a three-point fall in the north of England.

In 2019, Mr Johnson won parliamentary seats across northern England, attracting Labour’s working-class voters. His political strategy had been to consolidate those gains. In central England, this gameplan appears to be still working. The Tories took all the seats in Bedworth – in 2015 the party had none – to tighten the party’s grip on the Midlands’ Nuneaton and Bedworth council. However, since Britain left the EU, the issue of Brexit has waned. Labour won control of Crawley, Worthing and Southampton, places in the south that voted to leave.

Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens are attracting younger, more educated voters as well as former Tory supporters disillusioned with Mr Johnson’s chaotic rule. This strategy works particularly well for the Lib Dems and the Greens. Both parties appeal to graduates who recoil from the government’s incompetence. Sir Ed Davey, the Lib Dem leader, emphasises his party’s socially liberal attitudes, whereas the Green party has a radical economic message. The latter is quietly nibbling away at Labour’s vote, enough to deprive Sir Keir’s party of a majority in Hastings.

There are just nine parliamentary seats where the Lib Dems are the key challengers to Labour. And these elections confirm that the Lib Dems have become formidable opponents to the Tories. There was an average increase of eight points in the Liberal Democrat vote across places where the party started off in second place to the Conservatives – enough to dethrone the Tories in Somerset. The Lib Dem success in south-west London will unsettle Conservatives, as will the loss of West Oxfordshire council from Tory hands for the first time in 20 years.

Durham police’s announcement that it will be investigating whether Sir Keir broke lockdown rules will dampen his party’s spirits, though many lawyers suggest that he is in the clear. Labour needs to rebuild its core vote. There are signs that it is doing so in Scotland, where the party won control of West Dunbartonshire. Scottish Labour is on course to replace the Tories as the main challenger to the SNP. Here, too, Green advances come at the expense of the more centrist SNP. In Wales, the Tories were also losing ground, with Labour capturing Monmouthshire for the first time.

Labour has a 35% share of the national vote, the Tories 30%, and the Lib Dems 19%. Sir Keir would fall short of a Commons majority if Labour did as well at the next general election. But these polls are not the same as parliamentary ones. Turnout is low. The swing voters who switched from Labour to the Tories in 2019 are probably missing. The prime minister is out of touch. He is failing to placate disgruntled supporters. As he prepares to outline the government’s main policies for the year ahead, Mr Johnson must be wondering how he can.

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