May’s Tories Triumph in Brexit Heartland as Election Map Redrawn

  • Landslide in local contests point to huge wins on June 8 vote
  • Premier’s anti-EU campaign rhetoric sets tone for negotiations

Glasgow, the Tees Valley, Northumberland -- these are places that haven’t voted Conservative in decades, if ever.

If the scale of Theresa May’s victory in Britain’s local elections was startling, so too was its geography. In one fell swoop the prime minister has claimed entire swathes of Labour’s traditional vote in working class areas of the Midlands and the North as her own in what is a reconfiguration of the electorate along the faultlines of Brexit.

While Sunderland and Darlington won’t be immediately recognizable to a global audience, companies like Nissan and Hitachi are household names. They are foreign manufacturers that provide a lifeline to the local population in a largely industrial landscape where the majority of residents voted to leave the European Union. These same employers are the ones warning that the reality of Brexit could force them to leave the island.

Understanding how these areas -- with the most to lose economically-- are the same ones that have embraced May’s defiant rhetoric with respect to Brussels holds the key to understanding the direction the country has embarked on and where Brexit negotiations are headed.

“May’s consolidation of the Brexit vote is a quite astonishing success,” said Rob Ford, professor of politics at the University of Manchester. “They’re gaining voters who are excited about Brexit, and not losing voters who aren’t.”

Matt Singh of the NumberCruncherPolitics site saw it as a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” for the Tories to redraw the political map.

Dress Rehearsal

The signs point to May’s Conservatives winning national elections by a landslide on June 8. The huge majority she covets will free her from worrying about how to sell the Brexit deal she gets to Parliament, as well as allowing her to implement whatever domestic policies she chooses.

Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader shown to have little appeal among the wider public, is hardly standing in her way. The risk is voter apathy, with Britons facing a fourth major vote in as many years. That is where her sustained attack for the past week on “Brussels bureaucrats” has come into play.

“Traditional Labour voters like May’s message on Brexit -- that’s the pull -- but they also don’t like Jeremy Corbyn -- that’s the push,” said Steven Fielding, professor of politics at Nottingham University.

Dislike for Brussels, rather than Corbyn, might be more of an incentive to get to the ballot box. May’s campaign has identified a number of pro-remain seats that could be lost to protest votes. These are far outnumbered by the number of previously unwinnable Labour seats that the Conservatives are targeting as realistic prospects, according to a strategist working on her campaign who declined to be named. 

1931 Memories

May’s team may be prepared to lose a few seats in London and south-east England to cement her move towards a national, more populist party in order to try to win big in what was once Labour’s heartland, the strategist said. If she succeeds, it will mark a sea-change unseen since the before World War II when the U.K. was still an imperial power.

The 1931 election is generally agreed to be Labour’s worst ever result -- “the gold standard in Labour defeats,” according to  Nottingham University’s Fielding.

“Never mind the 1980s, when Labour was trounced by Margaret Thatcher: if things don’t change, then we might be looking at the worst general election result for the party since the early 1930s,” said Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary, university of London.

May has positioned herself as the national leader -- “strong and stable” she repeats time and time again -- needed to deal with a crisis as daunting as Brexit. She leapt on an article in a German newspaper as evidence that the EU was conspiring to undermine the election and bully the British people. While the strategy appears to have paid off, the poisoned atmosphere might mean talks get off on wrong foot.

Difficult Enough

“These negotiations are difficult enough as they are,” EU President Donald Tusk said Thursday. “If we start arguing before they even begin, they will become impossible.”

The prime minister’s overtly patriotic appeal -- unusual for a mainstream British politician -- increased the contrast with Corbyn, who is uncomfortable with national symbols, and refused to sing the national anthem at a church service shortly after he became leader.

“We ended up talking about defense and immigration and Brexit,” said Sion Simon, narrowly defeated in a central England mayoral race. “On those issues, Labour voters in Labour areas were saying to us: ‘We don’t feel confident that you’re strong enough in our traditional values.”

Labour wasn’t alone in taking a beating. The U.K. Independence Party, founded on a pledge to withdraw the country from the EU, all but collapsed, as its voters moved en masse to the Conservatives. The Liberal Democrats, who had hoped to catch a wave of anti-Brexit anger, lost seats, as did the Scottish National Party, looking for leverage to call a second referendum on independence.

— With assistance by Andre Tartar, and Svenja O'Donnell

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.