Labour wants to move on from Brexit, but English voters just won’t let them

Keir Starmer may have hoped to put the referendum behind him, but its effects on voting patterns seem to be intensifying

Brexit is done. Long live Brexit. The long election weekend started badly for Keir Starmer and Labour, and got worse from there, as the aftershocks of the 2016 referendum decision continued to reverberate through the English electorate.

At 7am on Friday, a massive Conservative victory was announced in the Hartlepool by-election, Peter Mandelson’s former seat and Labour’s for decades hitherto. Even before the Hartlepool result was declared, the evidence from early council results was looking bad for Labour. Under Starmer, the party has sought to move on from Brexit. This, it seems, is not yet something English voters are willing to do. In seat after seat in Leave-voting parts of England, the Conservatives surged and Labour slumped. Leave voters, it seems, remain keen to reward the prime minister who “got Brexit done”.

Nearly 4,000 English council seats were up for grabs in this bumper election year, which rolled together this year’s scheduled contests with last year’s delayed ones. The BBC projected national shares for the parties put the Conservatives on 36 (+8 on the 2019 local elections) Labour 29 (+1), Lib Dems 17 (-2), other 18 (-7). The Conservatives gained full control of at least 10 extra councils, including Harlow, Dudley, Cannock Chase and Worcester. Labour started in a weak position yet still haemorrhaged seats and lost control of Rossendale, Sheffield and Plymouth. The long march back for Labour in English local government has not even begun.

The Tory surge was particularly evident in seats which last voted before the referendum, with a seven-point swing from Labour to Conservative, and a double digit swing in the most Leave-leaning seats. But Starmer was not able to make much progress even in councils last contested in the first post-Brexit local elections, held when his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn trailed Theresa May by more than 20 points in national polls.

Using the BBC database of 1,156 wards across the country, we can analyse how the parties’ performance varied by the social and demographic character of the local area. The story which emerges is a remarkable one: traditional class-politics patterns are being turned upside down by a realignment around divides by age, education and – most of all – Brexit choices. On every available measure of socioeconomic conditions, the Conservatives prospered most in the most deprived places and Labour did best in the most prosperous areas. This inversion of class politics has already been evident for several years but it has continued, and perhaps intensified, in the first post-Brexit local elections.

While the old class divides have reversed, the post-Brexit education divide has intensified. There were major swings to the Conservatives in the wards with the highest shares of voters with few or no formal qualifications, while there were modest swings to Labour in the wards with the largest concentrations of university graduates. There was less evidence of the generational divide seen in the last two general elections and Labour’s traditional advantage in more ethnically diverse areas was more muted than usual. In 2021, as in 2019, Labour’s core electorate was graduates, well-off professionals and Remainers. The problem for the party is that these groups are nowhere near sufficient to win general elections as long as the Conservatives remain popular among everyone else.

The demographic and Brexit divisions in council voting were also evident in English mayoral elections. Labour secured substantial victories in the big, ethnically diverse and graduate-heavy cities such as London, Manchester and Bristol that now represent its English strongholds, and won the West of England combined authority from the Conservatives. There was a moderate swing to the victorious Conservative incumbent Andy Street in the Leave-leaning West Midlands mayoralty, and a much bigger swing in the strongly Leave-voting Tees Valley, where incumbent Conservative Ben Houchen secured a landslide in the North Eastern combined authority containing Hartlepool. Elsewhere was evidence of residual Labour strength in the Liverpool, Tyneside and Doncaster mayoral elections, and traditional Conservative strength in police and crime commissioner elections in English shires.

Conservative Tees Valley mayor Ben Houchen (right) on the campaign trail in Middlesbrough with health secretary Matt Hancock.
Conservative Tees Valley mayor Ben Houchen (right) on the campaign trail in Middlesbrough with health secretary Matt Hancock. Photograph: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images

This was also a disappointing weekend for the Liberal Democrats in England. There was no repeat of the party’s 2019 surge, when they rode a wave of Remainer frustration to gain hundreds of council seats. The party trod water in terms of overall vote share but lost some ground in areas where it had done best in earlier years, and made a small net loss of council seats. The wait goes on for Lib Dems hoping for a post-coalition renewal in local government.

The Greens, by contrast, had another strong performance in England, building on their record-breaking advance in 2019. The party fielded a record slate of candidates and had gained more than 60 council seats at the time of writing, with many results still to come. Green candidates gained the most ground in places where the party had performed well last time, suggesting the party have learned the Liberal Democrats’ trick of concentrating support to build a strong presence in local government. The party’s performance also overlapped with Labour’s, with the strongest Green showings in areas with the most graduates and professionals. Its expanding presence may have stymied Labour, with Green candidates winning most support from Labour’s strongest electoral groups.

Wales provided a bright spot for Labour, perhaps thanks to the Welsh government claiming the “vaccine bounce” accruing to the Westminster government in England. But the fallout from Brexit and from the collapse in a large 2016 Ukip vote also played out very differently in the Welsh Senedd than in England’s councils. Mark Drakeford’s party increased its constituency vote share by five points on 2016 in Wales’ first-past-the-post contests, and managed to do a little better in the places which voted most heavily for Leave. It added one seat overall, giving it exactly half of the 60 Senedd seats, and ensuring Labour would extend its 22-year unbroken run in charge of the devolved Welsh government. This performance reflected Conservative weakness as much as Welsh Labour strength – while the Welsh Tories also advanced by five points in the first-past-the-post races, and gained five seats in the Senedd, they were down by 10 points or more on their 2019 Westminster performance, enabling Welsh Labour to hold off the Tory challenge in Leave-leaning marginal seats which had returned Conservative MPs in 2019. Plaid Cymru was unable to profit from Brexit tensions or Ukip’s collapse, and despite gaining one assembly seat, have fallen to third place overall, with 13 seats to the Conservatives’ 16.

In Scotland, the incumbent SNP government increased its constituency vote share, and captured several marginal seats, yet fell just short of realising its ambition of a second Holyrood majority. In another election heavily polarised around both constitutional questions, tactical voting by unionist voters looks to have helped Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat incumbent MSPs hold off SNP challengers in several key marginal seats. The SNP could not gain the seats they needed for a majority on the proportionally allocated regional lists, where their vote fell a little on 2016.

Overall support for all four of the largest Scottish parties was broadly unchanged, but Brexit reshaped the distribution of their support, with the Scottish Conservatives gaining most ground in seats with a larger 2016 Leave vote, while the other parties all did somewhat better in the most Remain seats. While these more subtle Brexit shifts were not sufficient to dramatically change the outcome in Scotland, when combined with unionist tactical voting, they did cut heavily into SNP majorities in a number of seats, creating a larger battleground of marginal seats for the next Scottish election.

Nicola Sturgeon at poll count acknowledges supporters after being declared the winner of the Glasgow Southside seat.
Nicola Sturgeon acknowledges supporters after being declared winner of the Glasgow Southside seat. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/AFP/Getty Images

The result therefore looks to be a third successive dominant SNP victory, but not one of sufficient magnitude to deliver Nicola Sturgeon a single-party majority. However, with the pro-independence Scottish Greens set to return a larger slate of MSPs on an improved performance, there is certain to be a cross-party majority for independence in the new Scottish parliament. That majority will not include former first minster Alex Salmond, whose new Alba party flopped with Scottish voters.

One big question hanging over these elections was whether the disruption Covid has wrought to social life, the economy and the government’s role in both would break the long hold of Leave and Remain identities on our politics. That question has been answered decisively this weekend. We may be through with Brexit, but Brexit isn’t through with us. And the SNP’s third massive election win in a row looks to have set the scene for yet another wave of political disruption, as a Scottish government determined to leave the UK butts heads with a Westminster government determined to thwart it. British politics looks set to be framed by clashes of identities, values and constitutional preferences for a while yet.

Robert Ford is a professor of politics at the University of Manchester

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Robert Ford

The GuardianTramp

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