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31 March 2022

Can Labour prove itself at the local elections?

Keir Starmer needs to show that he can convert disillusioned Tory voters into Labour supporters.

By Ailbhe Rea

Keir Starmer will launch Labour’s local election campaign today (31 March), with a call on voters to send the Conservatives “a message they cannot ignore” on the cost-of-living crisis.

In a speech in Bury, the Labour leader and his deputy, Angela Rayner, will unveil new research showing that, even including the measures Rishi Sunak announced last week, “families are £2,620 worse off” under the Conservatives as the country heads for the worst dip in living standards since the 1950s. 

The big Labour slogan will be “On Your Side”, which, a bit awkwardly for everyone, is also a slogan the Conservatives have been trying out. Tory aides have been confused in recent weeks by “(on your side)” suddenly appearing in brackets on internal communications about policy ideas. Boris Johnson tried the phrase out in his speech to Conservative spring conference, as the party quietly abandons “build back better, build back greener, build back faster” and looks for other rubrics.

Politicians from all sides will tell you from their constituency surgeries and local election campaigning that partygate has all but disappeared from the agenda, with voters now in a high state of anxiety about rising costs. But that doesn’t mean that a national Labour campaign targeting those concerns is guaranteed to succeed for them: there are different schools of thought in Westminster about how best to approach local elections, with many arguing that Labour is often weaker by campaigning on a national, one-size-fits-all message, whereas the Conservatives are better at adapting with a targeted local message.

Only a few months ago Conservative MPs were saying that the elections on 5 May could be the pretext they needed to get rid of Boris Johnson, if the party came in for a drubbing over breaking the law over lockdown. But however crass it may sound, they are now saying that the war in Ukraine has saved Johnson, at least for the medium-term, showing “he’s a serious leader for serious times”, as one puts it. These elections no longer hold Johnson’s premiership in the balance, unless something drastic happens in the coming weeks.

There is still a lot at stake in these elections for both parties. The Conservatives will be scoping out the damage now that the dust of partygate has mostly settled and the cost-of-living crisis begins to bite. Labour, meanwhile, has the political weather in its favour – but so far the party’s polling lead has been driven by Conservative voters switching to “don’t know”, rather than Labour drumming up fresh support. This is the time for Keir Starmer to prove that he can convert those disillusioned Tory voters into people who turn out for Labour.

[See also: Will Boris Johnson survive the return of partygate?]

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