Local Elections 2021: How do Labour get back on track?
Updated: May 21
Well, it’s been a good while since I’ve written on here, owing basically to non-stop university work since September. And it’s fair to say quite a bit has happened since I wrote my last blog. Joe Biden is now US President, the UK has gone through 2 further lockdowns, Reading FC went from being 7 points clear at the top of the Championship to ultimately bottling the play-offs, and… Labour once again took a hammering at the polls, on the May 7 'Super Thursday'.
It was clear early on Friday that Labour were set for a pasting, with the first major result declared being the Hartlepool by-election, which saw the election of its first woman and first Conservative MP since the seat’s creation. Not only did the Tory Party hoover up every morsel of the Brexit Party vote – who kindly helped Labour hold this seat in the 2019 general election by splitting the right – but Labour’s baseline vote share also tanked by close to 10 points. This meant that even the Survation poll which predicted a 17-point Tory win, which many (including myself) dismissed as unlikely, underestimated the size of the eventual Conservative victory. Although the result was of no surprise, the numbers were absolutely devastating for Labour.
Moreover, councils in the so-called ‘Red Wall’ , such as Durham, saw Labour majorities eliminated, while such councils which had been hung saw the Tories win control. So, as Sir Keir Starmer’s first major electoral test, it is safe to say it was a baptism of fire.
But as the gloom and depression of Friday waned, which also saw my home county of Cornwall see the Tories win power for the first in time in over a decade, Saturday proved to offer some rays of hope (after all, it surely couldn’t get any worse, right?).
A surprise to many, Labour’s Dan Norris took the West of England mayoralty from the Conservatives on a huge swing, which saw Norris beat Tory candidate Samuel Williams by an impressive 20 points after second preferences. This was powered by strong anti-Tory turnout in the progressive bastions of Bath and Bristol, while Labour also held their own in the Conservative heartland of north-east Somerset, which happens to be Jacob Rees-Mogg’s backyard. South Gloucestershire, which currently has 3 Tory MPs, also saw Labour, the Greens and the Liberal Democrats together pick up more votes better than the Conservatives, with the Supplementary Vote system helping Norris to scoop up Green and Lib Dem votes to comfortably beat Norris on second preferences.
Another big scalp that Labour took was another metro mayoralty - this time in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough. Granted, the result was a lot closer than in the West of England (Labour's Nik Johnson only defeated incumbent Conservative James Palmer by less than 3%) and had it not been for the Supplementary Vote, Palmer would have comfortably won, as they enjoyed a plurality of first round votes. But given that Labour actually placed third behind the Liberal Democrats when Palmer was first elected in 2017, it is a substantial improvement. Peterborough and South Cambridgeshire are clearly vulnerable constituencies for the Tories, and represent important pickup opportunities for Labour and the Liberal Democrats respectively at the next general election. (There may need to be a tactical alliance, but that is another story in itself.)
Speaking of Cambridgeshire, the Conservatives lost control of its County Council, winning just 28 seats – its worst showing in terms of the proportion of seats in some three decades – despite the Council constantly flipping from Tory majorities to No Overall Control (NOC) ever since its first elections in 1973. Similarly, in south-eastern Tunbridge Wells, the Tories lost overall control of the Borough Council for the first time since 1998, to the benefit of the Lib Dems and (to a lesser extent) Labour. Not too far away in Worthing, the Tories held on to their majority but Labour netted six of the thirteen seats up for election.
This may seem like cherry-picking good results out of what was overall a shambolic set of elections for the supposedly new-look Labour Party. But if you take a look at the trends, there is evidence that the Tories are losing ground in their former southern heartlands. It is hard to draw definitive conclusions as to why this is, but Brexit regret, as well as the Tories’ Trump-like embrace of populism, will surely factor in.
Make no doubt about it, though, the party’s problems have not gone away and the new leadership have still yet to convince many voters that abandoned the party in droves in 2019 that Labour is fit to govern again and listening to their grievances. It is a damning indictment on Labour that much of the electorate think that the Tories could do a better job, when they have overseen one of the world’s worst responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has claimed the lives of over 120,000 Britons.
So, with 3 years to go (or fewer, depending on whether the Tories brave an early poll), how can Labour turn their fortunes around?
When you look at the areas where support for Labour has been haemorrhaging over the last decade, a consistent trend is that voters feel as though they have been ‘forgotten’ or ‘neglected’ by the party. In these working-class communities which have known nothing but Labour rule, many feel as though Labour no longer works in their interests, or even fully appreciates what these interests are.
This is in some measure a result of fault on Labour’s part, but also a consequence of demographics. It is clear that Labour’s electoral base has become younger, more diverse, and better-educated, and consequently, it has become the party of city-dwellers and urbanites, where these groups of people tend to live. You can’t entirely blame the party leadership for appealing to these groups’ emphasis on social justice. But, as Keir Starmer acknowledged in the wake of the defeats, the party has ‘lost connection’ to many voters by not focusing on local, bread and butter issues.
To reconnect with these working-class areas, Labour needs to demonstrate that it is listening. Policy-wise, this could translate into support for increased devolution and more funding for local councils. But this would not be enough: Labour’s candidate selection process needs to be more bottom-up and local voices need to be trusted to understand and address the problems in their communities. Parachuting former MPs into neighbouring seats, as the Labour leadership did in Hartlepool, projects an image of ignorance and perpetuates the stereotype that Labour is hopelessly out of touch.
It is a bizarre thing, that after over 10 years of Conservative rule, many voters blame Labour for what are failures of central government. It is easy to dismiss such people as ignorant, but the hard truth is that Labour have done a dire job of explaining to the electorate how and why the Tories have wronged them, and why Labour could do a better job. For too long, the focus has been on the Labour Party’s crisis of electability and its factional infighting. The leadership needs to demonstrate that they are worthy of office by getting its own house in order, and then put the government under the spotlight. Starmer promised to offer ‘forensic’ opposition, but in fact he needs to be tougher at the dispatch box. He needs only to look at some of Blair’s performances against John Major in the mid-90s to grasp how powerful the role of Leader of the Opposition can be.
In fairness, it hasn’t helped that his leadership thus far has been consumed by COVID-19, with government measures (mostly rightfully) enjoying cross-party support. But as the UK emerges from the pandemic, the Labour front bench must go after Boris Johnson’s bumbling and inept approach to the crisis with full throttle. There is so much for the Tories to answer for, from the lavish contracts handed out to their mates, to the GCSE and A-level debacle last summer. So far, it feels as though the Tories have gotten away with it all, and Labour need to respond.
Even as a paid-up Labour member, if someone were to ask me, ‘What are Labour’s top 3 policy priorities?’, I would struggle to give a full answer. Ironically, this isn’t down to a lack of policies – rather, it’s the exact opposite. In fact, the overwhelming number of policy announcements made by Keir Starmer, especially in the early stages of his tenure, meant that none of them really cut through, as each new proposal effectively drowned out the last.
To prevent them coming off as white noise, policy announcements should be well-timed, well-explained, well-marketed, appeal to a broad section of the electorate, and, most importantly, be fairly rare. For instance, Labour’s suggestion of a British Recovery Bond would be a great way to support businesses and give everyone in a stake in the post-COVID economic recovery – an idea that should not only go down well with business but is also firmly in step with the principle of solidarity.
But, if you asked 10 voters on the streets of Hartlepool if they’d heard of it, I’d bet on most, if not all of them saying they didn’t have the foggiest. To prove they are worthy of government, Labour need to sell themselves and their policies much more savvily.