I’ll let you into a secret: the slog of hard news and politics isn’t always fun for a speech radio presenter. It becomes draining and repetitive. Occasionally, you just want to cover stories about cool new inventions, trips to space or human endeavour. I’d even settle for the Virgin Mary presenting herself in a burnt piece of toast.
And then, sometimes, the country serves up how it feels in an enormous democratic exercise and it’s impossible to do anything other than bathe in it.
Firstly, just a brief moment for its gloriousness. We’ve had enough recent examples of the fragility of modern democracy to feel grateful this week. Even if you’ve only voted for the local councillor most likely to clear the dog poop from the park – it might not be Washington, but it’s still the majesty of an election.
This weekend on talkRADIO, as the results trickle through from all four corners of the UK, we’ll take a deep breath and a broad look at what they’re telling us.
We should tread carefully. It’s all too easy to succumb to the perils of taking a simple lesson from a complicated experiment. This election has been a messy tapestry of local issues and characters, a new leader, mayoral races, a by-election, a pandemic and all with the dust of Brexit still whirling through the air. To take a single lesson about any one leader or party or issue would be an easy trap to fall into. That isn’t to say these elections don’t matter and that there is nothing to be learnt. They do… and there is. Especially for Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer and his team.
The headline going into the weekend is a painful one for Labour to swallow. Hartlepool has voted for a Conservative MP for the first time in its history. And not by a small margin, with a thumping majority of seven thousand votes. If so-called ‘Red Wall’ seats simply loaned Johnson their vote to get Brexit done in 2019, they don’t look to be calling the loan in anytime soon.
Starmer’s critics will be as quick to claim victory as the Tories. The battle between Starmer and the Corbyn-left has barely begun, never mind been won. His critics will claim the way Starmer has moulded himself and his party are to blame, Starmer could just as easily argue that he hasn’t yet gone far enough. He didn’t hesitate in sacking Corbyn’s heir Rebecca Long-Bailey when she endorsed an interview with anti-semitic claims and he was tough on Jeremy Corbyn himself when he dismissed a damning report into the same issue. A tough stance on anti-semitism was the first signal that this was a new leadership and a departure from what came before, but even moderates in the party feel they have been left waiting to see what it’ll be replaced with. Starmer has proved to them that he isn’t Jeremy Corbyn, now he’ll need to prove that he isn’t Ed Milliband.
As one Labour source told Channel 4’s political correspondent Liz Bates this morning: “Just because we have stopped pissing in the bath doesn’t mean people want to jump in with us straight away.” It’s a neat and witty summary. But maybe it underestimates the political force – and, indeed, cult – of Boris Johnson.
Labour had been hoping to use Johnson as a weapon. The final weeks of the campaign leant heavily into allegations of sleaze and corruption and cronyism. Critics of Johnson cannot understand the appeal, they see him as an opportunist and a liar. The man who wrote two columns before Brexit, one for and one against. The man whose personal life is marred with accusations of infidelity and an ambiguous amount of children. When a crisis came, he dithered and delayed and they place the eye-wateringly high COVID death toll squarely at his door.
Some of those feelings will likely stick, and ‘polarising’ remains the best way to describe the Prime Minister. But the analysis of many of his critics fails to take the temperature of much of modern Britain – a country grappling with an identity crisis. The forces of right wing populism have cranked up the volume to deafening levels. For some, it has become impossible to consume anything other than a constant stream of culture wars and perceived attacks on the things you love – and the enemies have been well established – with these biases confirmed on loop through the grip of an echo chamber.
Enter Boris Johnson. A bullish, British eccentric. Sometimes hapless and most certainly a product of privilege, often it’s most ugly elements… but for a country that has a curious fascination with aristocracy and the gentry, that simply adds to the charm. If his critics are going to win the argument, Boris Johnson may not be the bogyman they need.
The Brexit vote of 2016 was a product of successfully harnessing those forces. It captured a mood and that mood hasn’t gone away. If the dusts of Brexit do still whirl in the air, the question becomes… will they ever settle?
It would be unfair not to put these elections in the context of the pandemic. For Starmer and Labour, that has meant rebuilding a political party and trying to sell it to the country from his back bedroom. For Johnson and the Tories, it has meant almost daily communication with the country from the podiums in No.10 and – despite the missteps, failures, criticisms and death toll – the election falls neatly at the crossroads of a successful vaccine roll out and an optimistic spring unlocking. Not to mention the fact that furlough and loan schemes mean the economic pinch of prolonged lockdowns is, for most people, yet to be felt.
But if you’re looking for a concrete conclusion to take into a general election in 2024, you’re going to get tangled in the complex mesh of local politics and pandemics. On Saturday, Alain Tolhurst from Politics Home joins us to take a tentative stroll through the results and the lessons we can learn. On Sunday, we’ll chew through the outcomes of the key mayoral races with journalist Benedict Spence and political analyst Professor Scott Lucas.
See you in the morning.
Weekend Early Breakfast – with Darryl Morris. Saturday and Sunday – 5am-7am – talkRADIO.May 07, 2021 | No Comments