Local Elections: Labour's Missed Opportunity

Written by Thom Barnes-Wise

Sir Keir Starmer, seen here in Parliament in spring 2020, is under increasing pressure after a dire set of local election results.


After most elections, the question ‘Did the elected win or the unelected lose?’ is posed somewhat flippantly, but it is clear that (at least in England) the results of the 6th May were abject defeats for Labour. The party lost 327 councillors and a total of 8 councils - including Durham County Council, which the party has held since 1919 - whilst the Conservatives picked up 235 councillors and now control 63 councils, up from 50 beforehand. There is almost no need to mention the loss of Hartlepool for Starmer, which has voted Labour continuously from its creation in 1974.


What was the reason for these results? Whilst there’s no definitive answer, it seems clear that the total lack of message from Labour didn’t help. There are only so many ‘forensic’ takedowns of Boris at PMQs and promises that you’re not Corbyn that the electorate can take before the assertions that Keir will be 20 points ahead come the next general election seem visibly false. Campaigning on the ground seemed to consist primarily of telling the party membership to go home and getting the most detestable remnants of New Labour out and about to remind everyone that – at last! – life peers can vote Labour again. The only clear policy that Labour supported during the election was a pay rise for nurses higher than the 1% supported by the Conservatives, but that still wasn’t supported by the Royal College of Nurses, who have demanded a 12.5% pay rise for the sacrifice nurses have made during the pandemic.


To top it off, Starmer’s reshuffle only days after the election results was both hugely humiliating for him and still not enough. Keir seems to have immediately fired Deputy Leader Angela Rayner from her role of party chair and campaign coordinator despite publicly claiming total responsibility, and when the news was leaked to the media and received widespread criticism – including from Labour stars like Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham – his office panicked and swore that all along it had meant to give her a different job as Shadow Chancellor for the Duchy of Lancaster, narrowly averting another civil war. The rest of the reshuffle was predictably uninspiring, with Starmer keeping his allies close and anyone to the left of Ed Miliband so firmly in the backbenches they’ll need a telescope to see the despatch box.


In all, it’s been a rough time for the Labour Party and even more so for Keir Starmer. He was elected on the assumption that his lack of personality or personal ideology didn’t matter as long as he could end Conservative dominance and start winning elections – something he’s failing to do. In fact, according to YouGov, Keir’s approval rating sits at a disastrous net -48 points whereas Corbyn had a net -40 at the same point in his leadership tenure. The Labour Party as a whole still continues to plummet with new polls putting them around 28%, or a point less than they won in the local elections.


It was not a total defeat for the Labour Party, however, with Welsh Labour increasing their vote share and gaining an extra seat, meaning they have exactly half of the 60 seats in the Senedd. Mark Drakeford’s government is widely considered to have had a very successful response to the pandemic. Both Labour and the Conservatives managed to make significant gains from the corpse of UKIP and worries about the anti-devolution Abolish the Welsh Assembly were firmly squashed, too. Drakeford, who is on the left of the party, has shown that strong ideas and vision can be both effective and popular with the electorate, and his bold ideas have allowed him to both gain former UKIP votes and ensure that pro-independence, left-wing Plaid Cymru don’t entice voters on the Labour Left. The Labour situation in Wales seems to be the exact opposite of that in England, and Starmer would do well to learn some lessons.


In Scotland, the SNP saw its fourth consecutive victory and won an extra seat to a total of 64. It is now just one shy of an overall majority, and together with the pro-independence Scottish Greens will be able to ensure a majority of MSPs will support attempts for further referenda. Their real challenge will come from Westminster, where the Prime Minister refuses to accept the idea of a second ‘once-in-a-generation’ vote. Pro-independence parties won only 49% of the constituency vote and 51% of the list vote, suggesting that independence is still a highly contentious issue and giving Johnson just enough room to veto any proposals for a second referendum without seeming like an anti-democracy tyrant. A total fight doesn’t appear imminent – Sturgeon won’t strike until a ‘yes’ vote seems guaranteed – but neither side seem likely to budge: the SNP can’t accept anything less than an independent Scotland and the Tories can’t accept anything more than devolution without the respective parties’ electorate abandoning them. A Cold War in Scotland seems brewing and without a considerable peace offering from Westminster, the future of our United Kingdom is increasingly perilous.


In short, the local elections were fairly boring for most people. Neither Scotland nor Wales saw a change in their devolved governments, and whilst county councils are important, they will take a political backseat compared to the decisions imposed by parliament. The real news is the prolonged death of the Labour Party and the failing leadership of Sir Keir. His assumptions that Labour’s issues stem from being too far left and failing to connect with the average voter seem to be far too simplistic in comparison to the systemic struggles that the party have faced since 2010. Starmer lacks vision and character, and without these it seems truly unlikely that there will be enough of an overhaul to make people want to start electing Labour governments again. As Marx said, history repeats itself first as tragedy and then as farce. The 2019 defeat was certainly tragic, Starmer must hope he’s not remembered as Labour’s clown.


Photo source - Flickr (UK Parliament)