Keir Starmer is facing a rocky few days as the party's results from the local elections start to come in. Labour has lost Hartlepool with the Tories taking the seat with a majority of 6,940. While many Labour campaigners were braced for defeat, the margin by which the Conservatives have won has taken both pollsters and those on the ground by surprise. The problem for Starmer is that although it will be a few days before we have the whole picture, it appears to be a sign of things to come.
The party is losing votes on both sides. As well as Tory gains from Labour in Northumberland, Labour has also been losing votes to the Greens and Lib Dems. Corbynites have been quick to go on the offensive and a blame game is underway before most of the results are yet to come in. One of Starmer's MPs, Lloyd Russell-Moyle, has lashed out by publicly questioning the party's so-called patriotism strategy. The Labour leadership is braced for more criticism from the left of the party in the coming hours and days. Already there is a push for the party to move to the left in order to win back Green votes.
— Lloyd Russell-Moyle MP🌹🏳️🌈 (@lloyd_rm) May 6, 2021
Good to see valueless flag waving and suit wearing working so well... or not?
The line from Starmer and his team is that these results show that Labour has 'a mountain to climb' and that the party has not changed nearly enough to win back lost voters. The Labour right, too, are pushing a similarly defensive line. MPs on the right of the party believe that this result shows that Labour has to go much further and forget about trying to appease the left. 'It's a fantasy to think that anyone in Hartlepool was saying: I won't vote Labour, I miss Jeremy Corbyn,' says a Labour source. They argue that there is an overhang from the Corbyn era which is going take time to fix.
There is also anger over the decision to hold the by-election on the same day as the local elections. The concern is that this meant people voting for the popular Tees Valley mayor Ben Houchen were more likely to vote for the Tory candidate in Hartlepool. Starmer's decision, too, to pick a candidate who previously backed a second referendum has brought back questions over whether a 'Remainer lawyer' has the judgment required to win back votes in the red wall.
So, is Starmer on the ropes? While his leadership is about to come under the most pressure since his selection as party leader, few believe that his position is in real danger. In terms of the parliamentary party, the view is that there are not enough MPs on the left of the party to mount a leadership challenge. What's more likely is a push for Starmer to change strategy – with competing sides arguing for radically different approaches. There is already talk on both sides of the party that Starmer needs to reshuffle his frontbench as well as his backroom team. If the results continue along current trends, Starmer will come under pressure to do something to demonstrate to the public and his party that he really is listening.