Bread and circuses: why the Conservatives are on a roll


The Covid-19 vaccine rollout played a big part in the Conservatives’ success at the 2021 local elections, but the shrivelling of political debate in the UK and an appetite for big government also played a role.

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Postal voting pack used in the 2021 local elections: white for local councillors, yellow for mayoral elections and green for police and crime commissioner.

The inflatable Boris Johnson spotted outside the Hartlepool count on 6 May did not, in truth, look much like the prime minister. The blonde hair was unruffled, the paunch slightly too large. But it was ‘part of a new project to make people smile’, reported the Hartlepool Mail, and Johnson was all grins when he visited the constituency to celebrate the Conservatives’ by-election win. Hartlepool has not had a Tory MP since 1959.

In England, at least, the council elections held on the same day were equally satisfying for the Conservatives. A splodge of Labour red is still visible in the north-west, but elsewhere, councils are solidly Tory blue, with a few under no overall control. Labour did well in Wales, and somewhat better in the mayoral races, picking up Cambridge & Peterborough and the West of England, and winning Greater Manchester comfortably. Sadiq Khan’s win in London was rather less comfortable, despite the failings of his opponent, who blamed Khan for the drop in public transport revenues during the pandemic. He also took advantage of unhappiness in outer London about the extension of a tax on polluting cars.

It is galling for Labour. The party dumped its left-wing leader Jeremy Corbyn after he lost two general elections. Keir Starmer was regarded as a safe replacement whose competence and intelligence would enable him to expose Boris Johnson’s shortcomings. But newly-jabbed Britons are grateful for a vaccine rollout that is bringing the UK out of its third lockdown - or that, at least, is what a dismayed Labour party wants to believe.

But jabs are not the only explanation. Nor does a compliant press explain just how badly Labour is doing - though even a decade ago, the indulgence displayed by most of Britain’s national newspapers towards the government would have seemed extraordinary. The reason for Johnson’s success is more nuanced.

Politics has atrophied during the pandemic

The harm caused by school closures and shuttered businesses is well understood by now. But the damage that lockdowns and social distancing have done to political life, both in Parliament and outside it, has been barely acknowledged in public life. The vast majority of pandemic legislation was not debated by MPs, and was signed by ministers and voted into law by whips acting on behalf of legislators. No more than 50 of the 650 MPs are allowed to sit in the Commons chamber at any one time. Political meetings are virtually impossible except on Zoom - indoor gatherings were mostly banned until 17 May, with an upper limit of six people thereafter - and rallies are impossible. As the furore earlier this year over a vigil in South London to commemorate a murdered woman showed, the police have taken bans on public gatherings very seriously. Indeed, a bill that will significantly and permanently restrict the right to protest is currently making its way through Parliament. 

During the pandemic, ministers seized the chance to hold televised briefings from which, naturally, opposition parties were excluded. Lockdown and unlocking decisions became the overwhelming focus of public attention. The May 2021 elections took place without the usual public debates and door-to-door canvassing: the government stipulated that ‘the number of campaigners operating in a single street or neighbourhood should be kept to an absolute minimum.’

Hardly surprising, then, that governing parties - the Conservatives in England, Labour in Wales, and the Scottish National Party in Scotland - did so well. Political debate was already moving to WhatsApp and Twitter, and the pandemic has accelerated that shift. In short, the opportunity for opposition and insurgent parties to make their points and campaign has been seriously curtailed.

Boris Johnson has embraced big government

Voters in the north of England, who had come to believe that the Conservatives no longer cared much about their prospects, are changing their minds. In 2019, many of these people voted Conservative out of dislike for Jeremy Corbyn, an appreciation for Johnson’s personal style, and a desire to ‘get Brexit done’. Their constituencies now enjoy a louder voice in Parliament and the promise of ‘levelling up’ - which most people interpret as more spending in the North and Midlands, and less in London and the south-east.

MPs and mayors who can secure ‘wins’ for their areas are rewarded at the polls. In Tees Valley, the Tory mayor Ben Houchen was re-elected after securing a ‘freeport’ for the region and attracting new jobs and investment. Labour’s biggest success was in Greater Manchester, where the mayor had loudly stood up for local interests when the area was locked down before other regions and denied extra support.

Labour, which used to take the support of these regions for granted, is mourning their loss. The party’s bedrock in Scotland had already gone. Without the North, it is impossible for it to win a national majority. Some Labour politicians, including Tony Blair, have talked about the possibility of a ‘progressive alliance’ involving the (struggling) Liberal Democrats, but the party is famously allergic to compromise and coalition government. Others have pointed to their good results in mayoral elections and a few places in the South as a sign that Labour needs to pursue younger, more liberal and anti-Brexit voters. But this is at best a long-term strategy.

Frustrated with Labour, some voters are attracted to the Greens

The Greens had a good election, gaining 99 council seats across England and Wales and giving Scotland a pro-independence majority. They did particularly well in Bristol and Sheffield. Certainly, a swathe of Green support is undoubtedly rooted in worries about the climate emergency. Before the pandemic, Extinction Rebellion attracted large numbers of protestors, who now face long-term curbs on their ability to campaign and demonstrate. But in some city districts, Green support has also come from better-off residents who want more Low Traffic Neighbourhoods, bike lanes and local co-operatives.

During the pandemic Britons were ordered to take exercise only locally. Many had the chance to spend more time in parks and green spaces, enjoying a brief respite in air pollution (which, however, was quickly reversed when people did not return to public transport). For some, campaigning on clean air and volunteering at foodbanks has been a welcome distraction from loneliness and anxiety about Covid-19. The Greens are well placed to take advantage of these grassroots movements, particularly if the Labour party continues to fret about the reasons for the loss of Northern seats and quarrel about whether Corbyn would, in the end, have led the party to victory.

Starmer has replaced his shadow chancellor and promises a big policy review. He has no obvious successor - except, perhaps, Andy Burnham, the Manchester mayor who stood up to Johnson. Some urge him to hang on, waiting for Johnson to do something so egregious that it finally destroys the public’s confidence in him. But that strategy is looking more and more inadequate as the government’s popularity rises.

It is difficult for many on the left to grasp quite how quickly Johnson has come to dominate British politics. Few can understand how someone with little aptitude for governing in a crisis can be so popular with the general public. But like his Cabinet colleagues, who quickly spotted an opportunity to help friends secure Covid-19 contracts when urgency meant the rules were relaxed, Johnson has been able to exploit the pandemic to his advantage. Giving people back their ‘freedoms’ - the meals out and drinks in the pub that they took for granted until March 2020 - has proved extremely popular. Right now, the ‘new project to make people smile’ is working. Brexit and Covid-19 have destroyed old party loyalties, and the Conservatives have been adroit enough to reinvent themselves in the service of each crisis. But when the novelty of a pub meal begins to pall, all bets are off.