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The Guardian view on the local elections: an anti-Tory landslide points to the end of an era | Editorial

The Guardian view on the local elections: an anti-Tory landslide points to the end of an era | Editorial
The Guardian view on the local elections: an anti-Tory landslide points to the end of an era | Editorial

Local elections are not known for producing “Portillo moments”. But the defeat of the Conservative West Midlands mayor, Andy Street, announced late on Saturday, undoubtedly encapsulated a sense of tectonic plates inexorably shifting in Labour’s favour. A locally popular and avowedly non-ideological figure, Mr Street had done his best to distance himself from the Tory brand. But there was to be no escape from the determinedly anti‑Conservative mood abroad in the nation. As contest after contest last week illustrated, the country simply wants the Tories out.

Where does Rishi Sunak go from here? Although any leadership challenge appears to have been shelved, the usual suspects have been quick to demand the usual fixes. The former home secretary Suella Braverman has led calls for a rightward lurch, including a pledge to withdraw from the European court of human rights. But chasing those voters now defecting to Reform UK will only help Labour and the Liberal Democrats peel off moderate Conservative supporters in even larger numbers, come the general election.

The defeated Mr Street’s plea for a more “inclusive, tolerant” brand of conservatism might once have provided a better route map. But that is not the kind of politics that the modern Tory party tends to get behind. As a bitter battle looms with Reform and Nigel Farage over the future of the British right, Mr Sunak looks cornered with nowhere to go.

For Labour, these dynamics offer an immense opportunity. But the fragmentation of the anti‑Conservative vote should give its cautious strategists pause for thought. In winning more councillors than the Tories for the first time since 1996, the Lib Dems enjoyed a stellar night, as did the Greens, who recorded their best ever vote share. Anger over the party’s position on Gaza hurt Labour, particularly in areas with a higher proportion of Muslim voters. Voters behave differently in general elections compared with local ones. But this was a landslide defeat for the Conservatives rather than a landslide victory for Labour, which still has work to do to seal the deal with the electorate.

Sir Keir Starmer is right, though, to point to crucial signs that his party is repairing the damage done to its traditional coalition of support in recent years. The biggest swings to Labour came in the biggest leave-voting areas, where Brexit had driven a wedge between the party and formerly loyal voters. It focused resources, and won, in the kinds of places where it will need to make gains to achieve a majority. In such areas, there is a yearning for public investment and an ambitious social vision that Labour will need to address. Victories in 10 out of 11 mayoral races further embedded the party across the country, ahead of further devolution in the next parliament.

Viewed alongside the changing political landscape in Scotland – where polls suggest a dramatic Labour recovery at the expense of the Scottish National party – the potential for a seismic reconfiguration of British politics is clear. This may not be May 1997, when Tony Blair and New Labour swept to power on a national wave of enthusiasm. But exactly 14 years after David Cameron inaugurated an era of punitive austerity, followed by rightwing populism and political chaos, the local elections confirmed that Britain stands on the threshold of something new, and better.

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