British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s ruling Conservatives appeared on course Friday to pull off a historic election victory against the country’s main opposition Labour Party, making deep inroads into Labour’s traditional heartlands in northern England after 48 million Britons voted Thursday for devolved, regional and town governments.
Early results painted a gloomy electoral picture for Keir Starmer's Labour Party — which lost a parliamentary by-election in the northern town of Hartlepool to the Conservatives for the first time in the constituency’s 57-year history.
As ballots continued to be tallied in England, Scotland and Wales following so-called Super Thursday polls, there was little to cheer Labour supporters elsewhere.
The election results could have profound implications for the future of the United Kingdom, if Scottish nationalists win an overall majority in Scotland’s devolved Parliament, but the results north of the border won’t be fully known until Sunday. The leader of the Scottish National Party, Nicola Sturgeon, has said she would see a big win as a mandate to hold a second independence referendum. Scotland rejected independence in a 2014 referendum.
The focus in the early tallying of votes Friday was on the results from across England. The coronavirus pandemic delayed some of last year's scheduled contests for local governments, making this year's voting the largest test of public opinion outside a general election in nearly half a century, analysts say.
Early results show Conservatives scoring wins across England’s northeast and Midlands, traditional Labour territory and known for years as the party’s Red Wall. In the 2019 parliamentary election Johnson’s Conservatives punched a hole in the wall, and the results so far from Super Thursday suggest that electoral accomplishment was no fluke or one-off success fueled by Brexit, favored many of Labour’s working-class northern supporters.
Conservatives were gleeful as the results started to trickle through Friday. Conservative lawmaker Robert Halfon noted his party had seized control of the council in Harlow in southern England “for only the second time in the history of our town.”
Starmer will likely come under mounting pressure from within his own fractious party if the pattern of Labour losses continues as the tallying unfolds in coming days. Analysts had warned before he vote that Super Thursday would amount to a huge test for Starmer, who has tried to shift the party back toward the political center. He has set as his key task attracting back lost Labour supporters, who deserted the party in droves when the leftist Jeremy Corbyn, who Starmer replaced, was leader.
Starmer was already facing a backlash Friday from left-wing luminaries in his party for the disappointing early results. They say he has failed to connect with traditional working-class Labour voters, coming across as a “metropolitan technocrat” out of touch with their everyday concerns. Before entering politics Starmer was the country’s director of public prosecutions.
Low personal ratings and rebellious lawmakers have bedeviled Starmer’s leadership.
“He’s now got about a year to demonstrate that he can turn things around,” said one senior Labour lawmaker, “otherwise the party will increasingly start to look for someone else.”
Some commentators suggest Starmer will be replaced before the next election.
“While talk of an imminent leadership challenge currently belongs on the fringes of the Labour Party, the possibility that he could be replaced before the next general election is a matter of open discussion on the Opposition benches,” according to newspaper columnist Gordon Rayner.
Jim McMahon, the party’s transport spokesman and a Starmer loyalist, placed the blame for Labour’s losses on Brexit, telling The Daily Telegraph newspaper that the election was “always going to be difficult.” He said Labour had failed to persuade traditional party voters who fled Labour over its opposition to Brexit to return to the fold.
“This was a Brexit aftershock,” McMahon said.
The Conservative candidate who won the Hartlepool contest, Jill Mortimer, said her victory wasn’t just due to Brexit, though.
“Labour has taken people for granted too long. People have had enough and now through this result, the people have spoken and made it clear — it is time for change,” she said.
It is only the third time since the 1960s that a governing party has won a parliamentary by-election. Hartlepool was one of Britain’s strongest Brexit-supporting constituencies, with 70% to leave in 2016.
A senior Labour official said, “Keir has said he will take responsibility for these results — and he will take responsibility for fixing it and changing the Labour Party for the better.”
However, a backbench Labour lawmaker told local media, “Not all of our shadow cabinet are as proactive as they should be. They’re not as combative as they should be. It can’t just be down to Keir to show that the Labour Party has changed.”
Johnson had just as much to prove as Starmer in the election. He has faced weeks of sleaze allegations relating to the awarding of government contracts and refurbishment of his residence at 10 Downing Street, but despite that appeared to be riding high in approval ratings, thanks largely to the country’s successful vaccine rollout.