by Phil Bevan
Despite whatever Keir Starmer says, the local election results were a crushing disappointment for Labour, grinding any hopes of their forming a majority after the next election into dust. As I have argued previously, Labour’s own working-out suggests that they need a swing of around 10 points to give them a rough 12–14-point lead for a majority of 1 at the next general election. Historically, opposition parties tend to do better in mid-term local election results, which are often used as an opportunity to protest against the Government, than they do in general elections. In general elections, people are more likely to revert to their traditional party of choice as fear of change and its consequences plays on their minds. As I have also pointed out in a previous piece, this is also evident in the period that Labour is taking as their model for success – the 1990s. In the 1995 local elections, Labour led the Tories by 22 points, in the 1996 14 points and they won with a 13-point lead in GE 1997 https://www.patreon.com/AdifferentNarrative
By contrast, Labour’s lead was 5% in 2022 and 7% in 2023. The small decline in Tory support can probably be ascribed to Tory leadership turmoil, which saw the Prime Minister change three times in a matter of weeks, rather than a Labour surge. Why do I think this? Despite improving its lead over the Tories in the 2023 local elections, Labour’s vote share did not improve from 2022, remaining at 35%. The fundamentals actually look pretty bleak for Labour; there’s good reason to believe that 35% may be close to the upper limit of what they are capable of achieving. Why? The Tories are likely to be in a stronger position than initially appears from last week’s election results.
The tentative Tory revival
While I believe that real election results are a far better indicator of actual popular support for political parties than hypothetical polling, the truth is, comparing the Tories’ levels of support from last year to their position this year is not comparing like for like. At last year’s local elections, the Tories were led by Boris Johnson, who, we shouldn’t forget, secured the Tories an 80-seat majority at general election 2019.
Although polling behind Labour, the results were actually fairly respectable for an incumbent government mid-term. From a purely electoral point of view, deposing Boris Johnson was a mistake for the Tories and the second coup against the legitimately elected Liz Truss also damaged the Tory brand. This, more than anything else, I believe negatively impacted upon Tory support, resulting in the fairly consistent 20-point notional polling leads Labour was enjoying over the Conservatives following Rishi Sunak’s “election” as Prime Minister.
Rather than comparing Rishi Sunak’s performance to that of Boris Johnson, to understand the full capability of the Tories under their current leader, we are better served by comparing Rishi Sunak’s position now, compared to what it was previously.
When analysing political polls, the general trend tells us more than headline voting intention figures, and, from this perspective, Sunak is heading in the right direction, despite significant economic turmoil that would be benefitting the opposition were it more popular and indeed competent.
For example, according to Yougov, since he assumed office perceptions of Rishi Sunak’s competence ratingshave increased to their highest level since he became PM (41%).
Although he is regarded as untrustworthy (he is a politician, after all), Sunak’s “trustworthiness” rating is at 24% (https://yougov.co.uk/topics/politics/trackers/is-rishi-sunak-trustworthy), its highest yet. Similar trends are visible in other metrics, such as strength (https://yougov.co.uk/topics/politics/trackers/is-rishi-sunak-strong-or-weak), decisiveness (https://yougov.co.uk/topics/politics/trackers/is-rishi-sunak-decisive) and likeability (https://yougov.co.uk/topics/politics/trackers/is-rishi-sunak-likeable).
This contrasts with Starmer’s ratings, which are on a downward trend. At the height of his popularity, Starmer’s competence rating was 45% (https://yougov.co.uk/topics/politics/trackers/is-keir-starmer-incompetent). It is now 33%. At its height, Starmer’s trustworthiness was 35% but is now 33% (https://yougov.co.uk/topics/politics/trackers/is-keir-starmer-trustworthy). In terms of likeability, Starmer is also at 33%, down from a previous height of 36% (https://yougov.co.uk/topics/politics/trackers/is-keir-starmer-likeable).
The trend is bad news for Starmer, as it suggests that he peaked in popularity some time ago. By contrast, Rishi Sunak’s ratings are on the up, despite his presiding over a serious economic crisis. Although repeating Thursday’s result would see Labour emerge as the largest party in a hung parliament (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-65475817) , present trends in leadership ratings – and indeed general election voting intention polls – suggest that the Tories are narrowing the gap. This means that Labour is on course to do worse next year, losing the general election unless it undergoes a major course correction, which is not going to happen, or Tory support collapses completely, which, though more likely, is still improbable.
Starmer’s Stalling Strategy
Many people on the “left”, see Starmer’s war against Labour socialists as vindictive and mean spirited. However, it is also strategic. As Labour Affairs incisively pointed out recently:
“Starmer is targeting seats that have rarely voted Labour. Starmer is attempting to make Labour attractive to voters who would never have considered voting Labour.
To be successful in doing this, Starmer will jettison almost all the radical policies on which he fought the Labour leadership election. To win these seats, Starmer is prepared to commit Labour to a pro-market, pro-business and anti-trade union agenda on the domestic side.”
Starmer’s war against the left is therefore a means of demonstrating to Conservative voters the seriousness and finality of the party’s change in direction. He hopes that Tory voters unhappy with their Party’s record in Government will shift to Labour. Partially, this is borne out of necessity. Thanks to the Brexit-driven collapse of 2019 – for which Starmer is himself chiefly responsible – to achieve electoral success and the 10 percent swing it needs, Labour must win both the “red wall” seats in 2019 and seats that traditionally voted Tory.
Nevertheless, it is a poor strategy rooted in the narrow mindedness of the political establishment, which is overly focused on so called swing voters. That Labour and the Tories are competing for the same votes and therefore now sound so similar, means that there is now more space for other parties to break through on both their left and right flanks.
This has been demonstrated to an extent in the May 2023 local elections, with purged former Labour councillors romping home to victory in the ward of Garston in Liverpool (https://skwawkbox.org/2023/05/05/breaking-gorst-williams-see-off-labour-in-garston/). Similarly, Thursday saw strong support for the Greens in some areas, with former Labour Councillor Jo Bird succeeding in retaining her seat after being hounded out of the Party over false allegations of antisemitism (https://www.liverpoolworld.uk/news/wirral-local-election-results-2023-labour-conservative-4131451) .
In certain areas of usually robust Labour allegiance, where independents have a strong record and have fought good campaigns, we could be seeing a sclerosis of Labour Party support. It would be wrong to overplay these results but their advance is likely being blunted by their own strategy, to the point that they are limiting their potential supporter base to a coalition that is too small to win them a general election.
Labour’s narrow focus on Tory voters and their consequent refusal to reach out to non-voters, whose apathy is driven by a lack of interest in a system that has failed them, also carries risk, as the Worker’s Party demonstrated in the 2022 local elections.
In 2022, the Workers’ Party targeted Birmingham’s Bordesley and Highgate Ward, and achieved close to 15% of the vote after motivating previous non-voters and disenchanted Labour supporters (https://www.birmingham.gov.uk/directory_record/370716/bordesley_and_highgate_ward_results). Labour’s candidate, lost votes on the previous 2018 local election, with their count reduced to 925 from 1176 (https://www.wikiwand.com/en/2018_Birmingham_City_Council_election#Bordesley_&_Highgate).
Starmer’s stalling advance demonstrates the problem at the core of his own strategy. To construct his bridge between Labour and Tory voters, Starmer has removed the core structures of support that underpin his party’s base, weakening it. In certain areas, with strong targeted campaigns from genuinely socialist parties appealing to disaffected Labour supporters and historic non-voters, that base will collapse.
Anger on the left
Moreover, Starmer’s purges and war against the left has not simply left formerly core Labour supporters apathetic: many are hostile and willing to campaign to bring the party down in order to make room for a genuine movement of working-class support. The decision by left Labour MPs to back Starmer when he might still have been removed – most notably in 2021’s Batley & Spen parliamentary By-election, when George Galloway’s campaign almost brought Starmer down – means that former supporters of the Labour left feel betrayed. The trust is gone, and ever fewer socialists feel sympathetic to a party that so viciously turned on them.
My view is that Starmer’s strategy has left Labour’s flanks vulnerable to a pincer movement, if, on the right, the modest Tory resurgence continues and, on the left, due to socialists’ increasing recognition that Labour isn’t and never really was a genuine vehicle for meaningful progressive change.
This is bad news for Labour but good news for real socialists who realises that the Labour Party is the main enemy right now and must die for the working class to thrive. However, to make use of our opportunities, we must target our relatively small resources strategically and strike at key points where we are strong and Labour is weak. In so doing we will progress and grow in strength over time. A coordinated alliance of small socialist parties and independents could punch above if its weight if candidates stand only in areas that play to their strengths. Conversely, there is little point of standing everywhere and achieving nothing meaningful anywhere.
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