‘Polls showed importance of geography and identity in politics’
Radhakrishna N S
By Sunder Katwala
‘CARRY on governing’ seemed to be the key message of the ‘Super Thursday’ elections across the UK last week.
That this did not seem a ‘time for a change’ was the common thread linking the renewed mandate to govern of Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) in Edinburgh and Mark Drakeford’s Welsh Labour party; the success of most Labour and Conservative incumbents seeking re-election in mayoral contests across England; and prime minister Boris Johnson’s Tories extending their general election advances in the north of England, including a rare by-election gain for a ruling party in Hartlepool.
Despite campaigning being hampered by Covid restrictions, turnout often rose. That 64 per cent voted in Scotland – the highest turnout since devolution began – showed how most Scots now grant a similar import to the Holyrood and Westminster contests. In Wales, 47 per cent was a record turnout for Welsh parliament elections too, even as half of voters sat it out.
First minister Sturgeon reached across party lines to celebrate the increasing diversity of Scotland’s parliament. There are now six ethnic minority MSPs elected in 2021, more than the four across the last five Edinburgh parliaments combined. Conservative Pam Gosal, of Indian Sikh heritage, and the SNP’s Kaukab Stewart are the first ethnic minority women at Holyrood.
The Welsh Senedd too now has its first female ethnic minority representative in Conservative Natasha Asghar, a Muslim woman whose father was the first ethnic minority assembly member back in 2007.
Most mayoral contests in England saw only a third of eligible voters take part, though this was an advance on the low-profile elections of 2017. London was an exception, as turnout fell three per cent to 42 per cent. This marathon contest had run an extra year due to Covid, but mayor Sadiq Khan’s re-election had rarely seemed in doubt.
His Conservative opponent Shaun Bailey outperformed expectations, ahead of Zac Goldsmith’s result five years ago and his party’s vote in the Assembly this time. Khan’s acceptance speech sought to reject “culture war” politics, after a first term often over shadowed by the Brexit referendum fallout and the transatlantic tantrums of former US president Donald Trump.
Place and identity mattered in these elections. One common frustration for local politicians is their fate is determined by national trends rather than local factors. Local performance mattered in these varied results. Politicians and parties with a reputation for being national and local champions prospered, while opponents out of power struggled to be heard.
Welsh Labour gained from its confidence in talking about a national culture and identity that it has done much to shape, and which by-passes some of the identity anxieties of England’s liberal left. Conservative Ben Houchen in the Tees Valley turned his surprise knife-edge win four years ago into a landslide with nearly three-quarters of the vote, reflecting public confidence in his tireless efforts to put the region on the map.
Labour’s Andy Burnham’s championing of Greater Manchester and the broader north during volatile lockdown negotiations was rewarded with 67 per cent of the vote, helping his party reach into Leave-voting towns in the region that it struggled with elsewhere. Andy Street’s reputation as a pragmatic, business-like champion of the West Midlands saw him hold off Labour’s Liam Byrne with an increased majority.
Yet in Cambridgeshire & Peterborough, it was harder to identify a clear first-term legacy for Conservative mayor James Palmer, with Labour making a surprise gain after finishing third four years ago. New mayor Dr Nik Johnson now inherits the challenges of how to shape an agenda that can bridge divides between cosmopolitan, liberal Cambridge, rapidly changing Peterborough and the Fenlands, in a city-region that is, in many ways, a microcosm of post-Brexit Britain. Labour’s southern advances and the Conservative’s northern gains could yet help to depolarise Britain’s traditional electoral geography.
The success of parties in government increased the pressure on Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour opposition, which risked turning inward as factional recriminations were reignited by a messy reshuffle.
But there will be many challenges for those in government too. The clash between Sturgeon and Johnson over whether Scotland can vote again on independence is delayed during the immediate phase of unlocking lockdown, but it will not be postponed for long.
Public perceptions of what divides and unites will shift as the pandemic recedes. The major Talk Together public engagement exercise, exploring hopes and fears beyond Covid, found growing concerns about regional inequalities and divides between rich and poor. The popular furlough scheme symbolised a commitment to handle the impacts of lockdown fairly – but this may prove harder to emulate if the return of growth is experienced unevenly. The pandemic has often sharpened existing educational, economic and social inequalities.
Those in office made mistakes during the pandemic, yet the renewed mandates of the 2021 elections shows that the public gave them the benefit of the doubt in unprecedented times. With power comes responsibility – and now the expectation to deliver.
Sunder Katwala is director of think tank British Future.