The least written reaction to the local elections is that Keir Starmer is very likely to be prime minister. For all the well-informed talk of progress being too slow, Starmer is set to become only the third post-war Labour leader to ascend to the premiership from the leader of the opposition’s office. This assumes, of course, that the confidence he displayed in his statement on Monday (9 May) — when he said that he would resign if found to have broken Covid-19 rules by Durham police — is well-founded. If it is not, his resignation will set off a whole new chain of events.
Assuming the story of his beer and curry with colleagues comes and goes, there is nothing in the local election results to suggest a triumphal procession towards Downing Street. The Conservatives did lose 487 seats on 5 May but Labour made net gains of only 108. London is now a thoroughly Labour city but, compared with 2018 when these seats were last contested, the party fell back in its share of the vote in every other region of Great Britain. The polling expert John Curtice projected these local results into a national share of the vote of 35 per cent, with the Tories on 30 per cent. There is no mandate for complacency there; Ed Miliband proved that aiming for 35 per cent is likely to produce an outcome of 30 per cent. Better to aim higher and fail better.
But it should be said that the Starmer leadership has indeed been failing better. Don’t forget the unholy mess that he inherited. On the day that Starmer became the leader of the opposition the Conservative Party was leading Labour by 52 per cent to 28, according to YouGov. In the last opinion poll, taken before the local elections, Labour led the Conservatives 39-33. During Starmer’s time at the top Labour has turned a 24-point deficit into a six-point lead. It might not be enough but it is not nothing.
In fact it probably is enough. The Prime Minister’s most troubling trait is that he is a polarising figure. When there is a pole around which politics can revolve — such as Brexit — that is to his benefit. When there isn’t, he ends up without any friends. At the 2019 general election 66 per cent of people said that leaving the European Union was one of the big issues of the day; now only 18 per cent say the same. Boris Johnson has lost his issue and he has discarded a lot of possible friends along the way.
This is going to matter. No other party will even contemplate dealing with a Conservative government led by Johnson. If he does not win an outright majority, he is finished. Labour, by contrast, could take office, albeit as a hampered minority, as long as it is able to deny victory to the Tories. The Tories face a fight with the resurgent Liberal Democrats in the south of England. The swing to Labour relative to 2019 was enough for the party to win some of its old northern seats back. In Dudley Labour won 12 council seats out of the 21 contested, which would bring the area’s four Tory parliamentary seats into view. Two seats in Wolverhampton and one in West Bromwich would fall. Labour’s performance in Scotland was better and where the party lost ground — such as in Hull, Tameside or South Tyneside — the losses do not really imperil any parliamentary seats.
These results are well within the range that would displace Johnson. It really is an indictment of the British electoral system that the Prime Minister could be replaced by an opposition that wins a third of the vote on a turnout of two thirds of the electorate, but that could happen. If the Tories take 37 per cent and Labour takes 33 per cent, it is probable that the Tories would be short of the majority they need. If Labour wins 35 per cent at the general election, the Conservatives need to hit at least 39 per cent to win outright.
The big shift here is that multi-party politics might be sneaking back under the radar. The elections of 2017 and 2019 reversed the long decline of the two main political parties. Between them, the Tories and Labour won 82.4 per cent of the vote in 2017 and 75.8 per cent in 2019. They are down to 72 per cent in the polls and 65 per cent in the local elections, which takes us back towards 2005 when 67.2 per cent of the electorate voted either Conservative or Labour. The return of the Liberal Democrats makes life very hard for Johnson. If the two main parties can only command 70 per cent or so between them, the arithmetic puts Starmer into Downing Street.
There isn’t really much in the way of precedent to dent this uncommon optimism. If we assume that this parliamentary term will run its full course — and with inflation as it is and a recession perhaps looming, that is a fair assumption — then May 2022 is an exact midpoint between the last election and the next. Yet it is hard to find a previous competitive electoral cycle in which the identity of both leaders was unchanged throughout the parliamentary term.
At the equivalent point of the 2010 parliament, Ed Miliband was 11 points ahead in the polls but the situation was complicated by coalition. The midpoint of the 2005 parliament came soon after Gordon Brown had replaced Tony Blair, which invalidates the comparison. The 1997 and 2001 parliaments were hardly competitive. In June 2003 Labour was still running at 43 per cent and the Tories, under Iain Duncan Smith, were on 27 per cent. The 1992 parliament saw a change of prime minister. During the Thatcher parliaments Labour was never in sight of victory. Between 1974 and 1979 both parties changed horses.
We have to go back to the 1970 parliament to find the best comparison, although even that is dubious because the Labour leader of the opposition, Harold Wilson, was a former prime minister. Almost 50 years ago to the day, the local elections of 1972 produced a Labour performance widely written up as disappointing. In the election that followed, in February 1974, the Conservatives won a marginal victory in the popular vote but, aided by a 19 per cent vote for the Liberals, which suppressed the Tory seat count, Wilson became prime minister.
All of which spreadsheet reasoning should at least provoke a pause in the constant demands that Starmer produce his vision for Britain. The leader of the Labour party is repeatedly called upon to excite the voters with a florid account of what his government might do. There is no doubt that excitement is a political asset, but it is worth noting that this demand is only ever made of the political left. Were there siren voices demanding that John Major come forward with his vision for the nation in 1992? Of course not. Did David Cameron have a vision for Britain, besides accidentally leaving the European Union? Theresa May offered “strong and stable” government, which is a deliberate advertisement that you neither have a vision nor want one. Johnson won office with a single-issue pressure group campaign. This demand for “vision” is a stick the left beats itself with. The right wins ugly victories. The left always demands of itself that it should be beautiful.
None of that makes silence a political virtue. The fact a minority Labour government is, at the moment, very much more likely than a majority is owed, at least in part, to the fact that too few people understand what Labour wants. It is not really true that Starmer has said nothing interesting. His positive public remarks on the need for good business to thrive are a world away from the rhetoric of Miliband. He has broken decisively and impressively with Jeremy Corbyn on the existence of anti-Semitism within Labour and on the importance of the Nato alliance. He has made it plain, as a former director of public prosecutions would, that Labour will be tough on crime. He has also — and here silence is telling — made it clear that Labour will not be reopening the wounds of Brexit, a correct strategic decision for which he wins too little credit.
These are all big strategic shifts, but I am reminded of a conversation I once had with Andrew Lansley when, to universal bafflement, he was introducing his unloved health reforms in 2010. How could anyone not have known they were coming, he wondered. They were, after all, described in the Tory party’s policy papers. I didn’t have the heart to point out that even I don’t read those. There is a slight whiff of this about Labour at the moment. It has the big strategic positions and a lot of detailed policy that nobody knows anything about. It lacks anything in between — the representative policies that, though small in themselves, give us something of the flavour of the kind of government we can expect.
A more confident opposition, one that was on course to storm the election, would be forthcoming on these questions. Labour needs to go further, faster. Its senior personnel need to repeat what they have done and why, over and over, even if they feel they are beating their own party up. They will face the Lansley problem if they don’t. But if they don’t — and plenty of the shadow cabinet don’t really want to — it might not matter as much as all that. Durham Constabulary might yet make a mockery of this prediction but, barring disaster, Keir Starmer is on course to be Labour’s first prime minister in a decade and a half.
Hear from the UK’s leading politicians on the most pressing policy questions facing the UK at NS Politics Live, in London. Speakers include Sir Keir Starmer, Ben Wallace, Lisa Nandy, Sajid Javid, Professor Sarah Gilbert, Jeremy Hunt, Layla Moran and Andrew Marr. Find out more about the New Statesman’s flagship event on the 28 June here.