Keir Starmer has turned a drama into a crisis. The local elections were always going to be difficult for Labour. The government is enjoying the political dividend of the vaccine rollout, and approval for its handling of the Covid crisis is now back to where it was a month into the first national lockdown. Much of the world is still struggling, but Britain has the lowest Covid levels in Europe and Boris Johnson’s approval rating is far higher as a result. He triumphed, and Labour struggled. But Starmer made this so much worse by his actions before and after polling day.
The first error was to hold the Hartlepool by-election on the same day as the local elections. Not only did this mean that the previously unknown Tory candidate could associate themselves with the hugely popular Tory mayor of the Tees Valley, who was up for re-election, but also that the Hartlepool result would set the political narrative. Starmer promised to take full responsibility for the election results — then showed how little he meant that by seeking to fire Angela Rayner, the party chair. Word leaked, her allies fought back, and the situation escalated.
In the end it was Starmer’s own parliamentary private secretary who resigned — amid accusations that she spread rumours about Rayner’s private life. Rayner is now behaving like a member of Theresa May’s cabinet, declaring in a BBC interview that ‘What I heard on the doorstep is they didn’t know what Keir Starmer stood for’.
Just a year after becoming Labour leader, Starmer’s approval rating is minus 48 — not quite the level Corbyn sunk to at his nadir, but not that far off. Another poll after the local elections found that his leadership (or lack thereof) was the most commonly cited reason for not voting Labour.
Little wonder then that the vultures are circling. Andy Burnham — one of the few Labour figures to come out of this election with their reputation enhanced — has suddenly begun writing a column for the Evening Standard. You don’t need to read between the lines to work out why the mayor of Greater Manchester might want a column in a London evening paper that is delivered in bulk to parliament every day.
But the painful truth for Labour is that Starmer’s leadership isn’t anywhere near the biggest of its problems. The party’s fundamental issue is that its old electoral coalition has fallen apart in recent years. Scotland’s 2014 independence referendum saw Labour voters defect to the Scottish National party en masse — and they have never come back. Something similar happened in the 2016 Brexit referendum, when Labour voters in the north-east of England and the Black Country moved to the Tories in the post-Brexit elections. They looked at Labour and saw a party of the metropolitan, cultural left.
Starmer’s problem is that the constituent parts of the traditional Labour coalition are moving ever further apart. Many of his metropolitan voters regard Brexity provincials with disdain. If Starmer went all out to try to win back voters in the north-east and the Black Country, he would risk alienating the Labour base in the big cities. In England, Labour leads the Tories in the core cities by a whopping 25 per cent, but it trails the Tories in towns of all sizes, according to the former Labour data analyst Ian Warren.
It is now very hard to see how Labour can win a majority at the next election. Its metropolitan base is too narrow and too concentrated to deliver anything close to 326 seats in the House of Commons.
The situation in Scotland complicates Starmer’s position further. One of the biggest challenges for any opposition is getting noticed. The immediate danger for him is that the fight for the Union between Nicola Sturgeon and Boris Johnson will become the dominant political story of the next few years — leaving him as a bit-part player. The medium-term risk for him is that the Scotland situation acts as a brake on any Labour revival in an election campaign. As soon as Labour get to a position where they look like they could deny the Tories a majority, they will start being asked if they would do a deal with a party that wants to break up the United Kingdom. Labour’s inability to answer the SNP question in 2015 did it significant damage, and senior Labour figures are worried that Johnson would have no hesitation in going after Labour on this issue come the general election.
So if Labour is in a mess, are the Tories a shoo-in at the next election? Some excitable Conservatives are talking about another decade in power — which is what they were saying when Theresa May called the 2017 general election. It’s amazing how quickly things can shift. As recently as January, polls were showing Labour leads. The jabs have changed politics, but we don’t know how long the effects will last. Across the UK, incumbent parties — the Tories in England, Labour in Wales and the SNP in Scotland — benefited from a vaccine bounce and a sense that the crisis is coming to an end. In many ways, it was the Kate Bingham party that triumphed at this election. But when politics becomes about clearing NHS backlogs and stabilising the public finances, rather than immunising people and reopening society, then the situation may feel different.
Normally, a party that has been in power for a decade is vulnerable to the charge that it is time for a change. At the next election, the Tories will be going for a fifth consecutive term in government — something no party has achieved in modern times. But the Tories’ ability to reinvent themselves has blunted the potency of this attack. Johnson has distanced himself from austerity, the defining policy of the Cameron government, likening it to drinking one’s own urine. Matt Hancock is busy unpicking Andrew Lansley’s NHS reforms, and Britain’s foreign policy has gone from trying to be China’s best friend in the West to trying to midwife a new democratic alliance to contain the country.
We are 101 weeks away from what Tory MPs consider the most likely date of the next election. If denying the Tories a majority is beyond him, the challenge for Starmer is to ensure that Labour avoids the fate of the French Socialists, no longer one of the country’s major parties. They have lost the bulk of their parliamentary representation and barely anyone expects them to make the final round in next year’s presidential election. At the next election, Labour’s survival as a major party will be on the ballot.