“The worst thing the Tories have done is the destruction of hope – the sense that we have to accept that this is us – that we are poorer and going downhill; and that big change is no longer possible.” Thus spoke an influential member of Team Starmer after they digested the outcome of England’s local elections on 4 May. The results show the Labour Party a clear route to a majority government, and suggests it will be very hard for the Conservative Party to stay in power. Keir Starmer and his inner circle are now focused on the next big question: what could go wrong?
Starmer is a leader who has been consistently underrated by both the left and the right. He was the “boring” choice to replace the radical Jeremy Corbyn; he was “Captain Hindsight” according to Boris Johnson; he was a diligent public servant, not a campaigning politician; he still isn’t winning his regular jousts with Rishi Sunak in the House of Commons; people still don’t know who he really is… and so on, and so forth.
All that said, it’s worth recalling that as recently as 2019, after a long series of reverses and decline in its heartland areas, Labour suffered its worst national electoral defeat since 1935. Yet earlier this month, it won the mayoralty of Middlesbrough, seized back the council in Stoke-on-Trent and became the largest party on the council in Hartlepool, as well as winning in places such as Dover, Thanet, Swindon and in Brighton & Hove. For the first time in more than two decades Labour is the largest party in English local government.
Labour did not quite win the raw numbers that indicate the party would have an outright majority in the House of Commons after the next general election – and here is its first problem. The Sky election analyst Michael Thrasher calculated that had these elections been held across the country, Labour’s national vote share would be 36 per cent – which would fall short of an overall majority by 28 seats. This indicates that, theoretically, the Liberal Democrats or the SNP could be given a door into government. Labour under-performing in this national polling suggests a surge in support for other non-Tory parties.
Inevitably, Labour will push back. Starmer will emphasise how effective the party has been where it needs to be. One of his team told me: “The distribution and efficiency of our targeting means that if [4 May] had been a general election, we would have had a majority government.”
The argument about whether these results point to a majority or a minority government will become central in the coming months. Starmer has recently spent a lot of time repeatedly refusing to rule out a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, and already the Tory deputy chairman, Lee Anderson, is warning darkly of a “dirty deal” ahead. The Conservatives’ famous “coalition of chaos” attack line will no longer work for them because, well, let’s be charitable and just say, for reasons we all understand. Yet that doesn’t mean the prospect of a coalition is politically meaningless. Voters don’t like uncertainty, they like a clear idea of what they are “buying” in advance. So, inescapably, the shape of the next government will be a campaigning question for Labour.
That’s why Labour’s spin doctors were working hard in the aftermath of the local elections to declare that the party was on course for an overall majority in the next general election. Yet, at this stage in the game, the biggest winner is clearly “anyone but the Tories”. Labour won an extra 537 councillors but the Liberal Democrats were not that far behind with 407, and the Greens picked up 241.
[See also: Keir Starmer’s manifesto: Labour’s Five Missions]
Here is how Labour intends to respond to questions regarding a coalition. First, with a blizzard of policy announcements over the next year, as well as arguing it can – and will – form a majority government.
Second, Starmer and enough influential Labour MPs are so strongly against voting reform that this crucial Liberal Democrat demand is likely to be rebuffed. While in the pressure-cooker negotiations of an actual post-election period no one can know exactly what will emerge, a minority Labour administration supported from the outside by the Liberal Democrats currently seems more likely. But this is a tricky calculation: a coalition would make Starmer less reliant on the small group of hard-left MPs who might survive 2024.
So far nobody is talking about a full-scale pact, which might be a mistake. One senior member of Sunak’s team told me that if Labour and the Liberal Democrats were ruthless and shrewd enough to make an electoral pact, “we would be annihilated” – before noting, with a relieved smile, that they weren’t.
On the SNP, the response is different and much more robust. Its new leader, Humza Yousaf, has told me that he is war-gaming an election in which Labour looks likely to become the largest party. In those circumstances, he will ask Scottish voters to exercise the maximum possible leverage – including demanding another independence referendum – by voting SNP. This would be a real danger for Labour because the Conservatives would immediately pick up that narrative and argue that a vote for Starmer was a vote for breaking up the UK. As Ed Miliband, who was portrayed in a 2015 Conservative Party advert as popping out of Alex Salmond’s top pocket, can confirm, they have done it before.
“The SNP has zero leverage on us because they couldn’t vote for a Tory prime minister,” retorts a senior Labour staffer. “‘We have leverage’ assumes there is a choice for them, but if Keir Starmer refuses their demands would they actually vote with the Conservatives?”
Instead, Labour plans to go full-frontal against the SNP, arguing that its response to questions over NHS Scotland, employment levels or education is simply “build a border”, which is “Trumpian, not progressive”.
We should hear a lot of that shortly if a by-election is triggered in the Rutherglen and Hamilton West constituency represented by Margaret Ferrier (a former SNP MP who now sits as an independent, after receiving a 30-day suspension from the Commons for breaking Covid rules). Labour in Scotland is almost salivating at the thought.
It may then take the national argument a stage further, arguing that up against a Scottish nationalist opponent and, on the right of the Conservative Party, an English nationalist opponent, Labour is the only party genuinely trying to keep the UK together.
A bigger challenge, however, is how Labour pitches itself as an alternative government, and to whom. There are no illusions about the scale of the challenge still ahead. “We need to make nearly double-digit gains in almost every region of England and need to make gains in Scotland and Wales as well; we can’t speak to just one part of the country,” says a member of Starmer’s team. All this must be done with a volatile electorate. Studies suggest that whereas in 1997, when Tony Blair won his first victory, the majority of his voters were “habitual” – sticking with the party that was somehow theirs – today the figure is far lower.
To achieve national spread, Labour believes it must both use a “Bob the Builder” strategy of offering to fix specific, quite immediate problems left behind by the Tories – such as the difficulty of getting a GP appointment, or food price inflation – and offer a more persuasive long-term vision.
[See also: Is Keir Starmer the heir to Boris Johnson?]
Although they have hardly caught the public imagination, Starmer remains committed to his five “missions” – which include securing growth, making the country a clean energy superpower, fixing the NHS, reducing violent crime and reforming the education and childcare system. There is a cascade of policy to come between now and the summer, I was told. On the NHS, the emphasis will be on reform, trying to keep more people out of the major hospitals by focusing on the role of GPs, followed by a radical deregulation plan and new targets that incentivise outcomes – fewer deaths from cancer or heart attacks – rather than simply measuring activity.
Aspects of the policy sound like the reform ideas Jeremy Hunt had when he was health secretary, which have been pushed gently to one side. But here, as everywhere, there is a further problem: Labour must expect the Tories to hone in on similar issues. Sunak, the child of a pharmacist and a GP, is already focusing on the problems with accessing local GPs. This is the kind of virtuous policy competition that can only be good for Britain – but it risks Labour having policies swiped by the Tories many months before an election.
Education looks easier. Labour wants to push back against the English baccalaureate, or “E-bacc”, system championed by Michael Gove, to bring more creative and arts teaching back into schools, and to focus more on making children whose lives were badly disrupted by the pandemic emotionally and practically prepared for the workplace. After policy work by David Blunkett, the former education secretary, there will also be a big announcement on degree-apprenticeships.
On food inflation, now at around 19 per cent, Labour promises that a better relationship with the EU and France can stop “food rotting in Calais”, while CEOs of the major supermarkets would be summoned for meetings on red tape and the case for more basic cut-price food ranges.
All of this, plus Labour’s £28bn green investment agenda and housing plans, may now get more attention. There will be announcements on the reform of government. Yet a big issue is what Labour ends up doing about repressive Tory measures on, for instance, protest – as the national coalition includes younger, more liberal voters too.
There have long been mutterings that Keir Starmer is not getting the personal support in the shadow cabinet that he deserves. One who sits in those meetings says Starmer “feels like the dominant personality”. His instincts are mildly disciplinarian and he hasn’t quite finished with the hard left, not because he hates them but because he sees the next Tory attack coming against Labour “extremism”.
Critics have spent a long time bemoaning who Starmer isn’t – a youthful, tousled, charismatic, radical visionary. They’d be better off taking more seriously the quiet, ruthlessly focused grown-up the Labour leader is turning out to be, because unless something goes badly wrong he is still heading to power.
[See also: What does Keir Starmer stand for?]
This article appears in the 10 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, What could go wrong?