Is it all doom & gloom for Sir Keir Starmer?

12 Mar 2021

Local elections are coming up. Ooooh, the excitement! As the first set of elections since the December 2019 General Election, they will be a testbed of national sentiment for all politicians, but particularly Sir Keir Starmer. DRD Partner, Pete Bowyer investigates…

Elections Eight Weeks Away

This year’s elections are fast upon us. On 6 May 2021, less than eight weeks’ away, millions of voters across the country will go to the polls to elect new Parliaments in Scotland and Wales, Mayors in London and twelve other English metropolitan areas, local councillors in 124 boroughs as well as 39 Police & Crime Commissioners.

A year ago, the government announced that the 2020 local elections would be delayed for a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so they are now to be held at the same time as those already scheduled for 2021. A mega-set of local elections, and the first real test of national opinion since the last General Election.

Sir Keir’s stumbles

They will be a particular test for Sir Keir Starmer. There is little doubt about it, but some of the gloss that accompanied Starmer’s own election victory as Labour Party leader a year ago has now faded. He has begun to stumble in his own hunting ground at PMQs and the party’s reaction to the Budget fell flat, to put it mildly (continuing to raise questions about Shadow Chancellor, Anneliese Dodds).

As a result, the party has fallen behind the Conservatives again in the polls, by as much as 13 points in one – the equivalent margin of the defeat Corbyn suffered at the hands of Johnson in the 2019 Election.

Criticism from the left

Predictably, siren voices on the left of the party have begun to stir. The focus of their ire started with Sir Keir’s reluctance to call for an immediate increase in corporation tax amidst the coronavirus pandemic, something which Richard Burgon, a Corbyn ally, described as a “debacle.”

The attacks on the leader have since widened to include more generalised complaints about “not listening to grassroots activists”, not making any difference to the party’s polling and not providing clear policy “red water” between Labour and the Conservatives.

None of this should worry Sir Keir. They are made, after all, by those responsible for the party’s worst General Election result since the 1930s, so who are they to talk? In fact, Starmer has quite deliberately gone out of his way to sideline the hard left, shied away from pledging eye watering tax rises, or revealing too much about any policies at all.

Instead, he has focused on image and vision, following core Blue Labour themes of “flag, family and faith” in an attempt to win back the very support Corbyn’s party lost to the Conservatives at the last Election.

Mid-term elections

But a disastrous set of mid-term local election results may be more concerning. That’s one reason the party was quick off the blocks to launch its local campaign yesterday ahead of expected launches by the Lib Dems [who? – Ed.] and the Conservatives in the next couple of weeks.

In doing so, Labour was also trying to manage expectations with talk of a “vaccine bounce” for the Prime Minister, the challenges of making the opposition relevant in times of national crisis and some slightly dodgy analogies to incumbents elsewhere holding on (Trump, anyone?).

More than anything, though, the party wants to turn these elections into “a referendum on nurses’ pay”, following the decision by the Chancellor to award our Florence Nightingales a ‘real terms’ pay cut.

Turning a wide-ranging election into a single-issue referendum is, of course, one of the oldest campaign tricks in the book for parties that know they are lagging behind and desperate to shore up their core vote – who remembers William Hague’s “48 hours to save the pound” ahead of the 2001 General Election, and how well that referendum on keeping sterling went for him?

Hopes and fears

There are, however, a few glimmers of hope amongst all the doom for Labour at these elections. In Scotland, new Labour Leader Anas Sarwar, a moderate in contrast to his leftist predecessor, is seeing a small bounce in the polls as the SNP tear themselves apart.

But even here the party still lags in third place behind the SNP and the Conservatives. In London, by contrast, Sadiq Khan could be poised to win over 50% of the vote on the first round of voting, as his hapless Tory opponent, Shaun Bailey continues to embarrass even his own party.

London, however, has been getting steadily redder over time. It should not be forgotten that the party’s single General Election gain in December 2019 was affluent Putney. Meanwhile, the rest of the country turns bluer, and this is what is really troubling Sir Keir according to one Shadow Cabinet Member I spoke to this week.

The next General Election will not be won on the leafy streets of South West London, but in Labour’s former heartlands in the West Midlands, Yorkshire, and above all Teesside. It came as no surprise to learn that in last week’s budget, the Chancellor had discovered a magic money forest in this long-overlooked part of the North East with promises of a freeport, the new headquarters for Treasury North and, no doubt, switching the UEFA Euro 2020 Final from Wembley to the Riverside.

Ben Houchen, the current Conservative Tees Valley Mayor, will be the result to look out for on the night of 6 May. Along with other council elections that night in the fabled “Blue Wall” seats, his will be a litmus test as to whether the 2019 Election result was just a temporary aberration, or could form a long term, structural flip in British electoral politics – with Labour winning the young, progressive upwardly mobile vote in core cities, and the Tories securing older, more socially-conservative electors in de-industrialised towns (similar to the North-South/Democrat-Republican flip in the US).

A pyrrhic victory?

Time will tell which is the case. But time may actually prove to be Labour’s ally, not its foe, in this instance. This year’s budget may indeed herald counter-cyclical Conservative victories at the upcoming elections, however the Budget contained many short-term giveaways for people now (little wonder it was so popular), but lashings of long term pain.

What Labour is banking on, in the inverse logic of opposition, is that by the time of the next General Election, tax rises will be biting, investment sliding away, benefit cuts hurting, job losses rising, Conservative-cronyism continuing and the vaccine bounce but a fading memory. My Shadow Cabinet source concluded: “We may well go 1-0 down this May, but who’s to say we won’t be 2-1 up come May 2024?”

PHOTO Credit: Sir Keir Starmer Twitter