Local elections anywhere can often lead to false readings of the national picture.

Such an error here in the local government polls in 2016 prefigured the national decline of the DA three years later in the general election in 2019.

Many will remember how — against all expectation and for what passes as “informed commentary” — the ANC was toppled from power in Johannesburg, Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay municipalities and DA mayors were installed in all three metros, while the party’s grip on Cape Town on the back of a two-thirds majority made the Mother City virtually a one-party state.

Yet within three years, the DA had lost all the mayors installed with hope and triumph in 2016, and the party in the national poll recorded its first vote decline since its founding in 2000.

The presumptions that the local polls could be replicated nationally, the belief of the party’s then leadership, was premised on a raft of assumptions which proved unsustainable: that the Jacob Zuma incubus which shrouded the ANC would still be on offer to repel voters; that stayaway ruling party supporters would continue to sit on their hands in 2019; and that the opposition could continue to soft-pedal its principles and offend its core voting base.

All these assumptions unravelled in 2019, and the DA has since then been reconstructing itself while the ANC’s get-out-of-jail card, Cyril Ramaphosa, has enjoyed unchallenged external pressures even while his internal situation, until last week’s suspension of his nemesis Ace Magashule, appeared precarious.

Of course, for all the wiseacres who pontificate on the failure of the local opposition to capitalise electorally on the serial governance failures and embedded corruption in the ANC, the solutions are simple.

Simply, according to these analysts, install an attractive leader, make a good policy offer and build unstoppable momentum, and this mythical opposition force could be measuring the drapes at the Union Buildings three years hence. The trick, according to these folk, is to create a vehicle and install a driver who, like the old Heineken beer ad, can reach parts of the electorate the existing opposition has never penetrated.

The fallacy of this assumption is that there is a universe of potential voters available to some newfangled opposition force — or some reconstructed existing entity — who can simply be tapped and mobilised. Of course, if it were that easy then it would have been achieved a while back, and not be a distant prospect after 27 years of uninterrupted one-party rule.

However, something happened in the UK last Thursday which suggests that the settled assumptions of the past decades have now been upended, perhaps for a generation or longer.

In Hartlepool, a depressed coastal town in the north east of England, the Conservative Party won a by-election in such a traditionally Labour Party constituency that it has never gone blue since its creation in 1974. It was said that the Labour Party vote, in days of yore, could be weighed rather than counted. The Tory win there would be the local equivalent of a ward in Khayelitsha returning a DA councillor in October.

And Labour’s misery was not confined to one seat behind its once impregnable “Red Wall”, now being dismantled with every new election. It lost a slew of councils and councillors in the northeast and Midlands and remains now the distant third party in Scotland which, until 2015, it totally dominated.

There is both a philosophical and personal cause for the domination of Conservatives in the UK, outside Scotland, and the demise of Labour, which is further from power than it has been in living memory. And these causes too have some universal application, with some local adjustments.

Labour’s UK problem is that its universe of available votes, needed for its return to power, is ever shrinking. While it still piles up big votes in the metropolitan areas such as London and Greater Manchester and in Wales, Brexit has removed its previous unassailable grip on the rest of England, the post-industrial towns where working class is no longer a synonym for Labour. And the seats it would need to win to oust the Tories after 11 years in power.

In Scotland, which previously was the first paving stone in Labour’s path to government, its 22% vote share last week suggests just how distant that prospect remains.

Then there is the marriage between the personal and the political in the outsize form of Conservative prime minister Boris Johnson. He might be Eton-educated but he is hardly the Tory toff of socialist caricature. He might have ethical and even sleaze issues, though in truth they would not rate a paragraph in corruption-ridden SA, but he defies conventional branding. His campaigning persona fits with man-of-the-people on steroids and he is highly flexible, not hidebound on ideological issues.

So he spends lavishly on deprived areas like Hartlepool and delivered on his key pledge of “Get Brexit Done”.

He might have been toppled after his botched handling of the coronavirus epidemic last year, which nearly cost him his own life never mind his office, but he rebounded, personally and politically.

And this was captured in his post-poll victory tour of Hartlepool where he announced: “Jabs, jabs, jabs and jobs, jobs, jobs.”

He was hardly exaggerating — Britain today is one of the most vaccinated countries in the world, and its economy is rebounding far ahead of all European countries after its exit from the EU. It was never probable that the UK would roll out a better vaccine programme than Germany for example, but it has and that too is one explanation for the likely demise of the latter’s natural party of government, the CDU, in polls later that year.

Here on the southern tip of the continent, we have currently vaccinated fewer citizens than failed state Zimbabwe has managed, on a percentage of population basis. And during the pandemic we have shed around a million jobs. Now only 10 million out of a population of 58 million have formal work.

Yet the ANC has yet to feel the wrath of voters’ rage for these twin catastrophes, and it is quite possible the local election results of 2016 were a false dawn.

But no less a scholar of the often-unfathomable complexities of the ANC than Thabo Mbeki, its former president, warned last week that another split in the ruling party is an imminent possibility.

Then there was the priceless comment of ANC NEC member Dakota Legoete, staunch defender of ousted secretary-general Ace Magashule. “Many of us are far more corrupt than Ace,” he said. That could prove a handy election slogan for the opposition.

The old assumption that oppositions do not win elections, governments lose them has a lot of truth embedded in it. It has yet to be sustained in SA, perhaps indicating the weakness of the opposition project. However, with the ruling party beset by its ever-escalating internal crises and its eye off the ball on the real issues that matter — jabs and jobs — it might yet get an airing. October’s poll might offer a clue. Just don’t over-read the results like in 2016.

Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications.

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