Labour is this morning celebrating a healthy set of results in town halls across England that its campaign co-ordinator, Shabana Mahmood, has said puts Keir Starmer on course for general election victory.
Votes are still being counted and only about a quarter of results are in, so it is not possible to draw a definitive conclusion yet. But at the time of writing, Labour has made considerable gains on its 2019 performance, when Jeremy Corbyn was leader, the Lib Dems are surging in the Blue Wall and the Tories have lost around 200 seats.
Starmer will be particularly pleased about how the party has stormed ahead in key target Leave-voting areas. Medway (which Labour has not held since 1998), Plymouth and Stoke-on-Trent are now in Labour hands, and the party has taken the Middlesbrough mayoralty from an independent. Labour also came within three votes of an overall majority in Hartlepool, where it was notably defeated by the Tories in a 2021 by-election. The party is making significant progress with its so-called hero voters, former Labour supporters who backed Brexit and then Boris Johnson in 2019.
Mahmood said the “map and the margins” of Labour’s win, together with a collapse of the SNP in Scotland, would mean Starmer would take Downing Street in a general election. Labour fought the campaign on national issues, such as the cost-of-living crisis, crime and the NHS, and that approach so far seems to be paying off.
Meanwhile, the Lib Dems are eating into the Tory vote in true-blue parts of the south. Ed Davey’s party has taken control of Maidenhead, the seat of the former prime minister Theresa May, and Windsor.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4 this morning the political scientist John Curtice warned the results could get a whole lot worse for Rishi Sunak. The Tory chairman, Greg Hands, was mocked for suggesting the party could lose 1,000 seats, but today Curtice said that prediction could come to pass.
But Curtice also cautioned that the swing towards Labour so far was “almost what you would expect from the national polls but not quite”, and not the ten-point lead over the Conservatives that he said would show a strong majority for the opposition. Labour currently has about an eight-point lead.
Instead, Labour is having to “share the spoils” with other parties, including the Lib Dems and the Greens, which are again making gains. The Manchester University politics professor Rob Ford, however, thinks that a ten-point lead may still be within Labour’s grasp when all votes are in. Counting has not yet begun in Swindon, where Starmer launched his campaign, High Peak, a key target, Darlington and Amber Valley, among many others.
Labour will also be pleased with its strong performance against independents in the north and the Midlands, as these battles could have been where scepticism about Starmer’s leadership found an expression. There are parts of the Red Wall, most notably in Dudley and Sandwell, where the Tories are performing better than expected, but Labour can point to success in key marginal seats that helped Tony Blair form a majority in 1997, such as Strood and Redditch.
There could be further bad news for the Tories in the Blue Wall later today, with Wokingham, Chichester, Surrey Heath (the seat of Michael Gove) and Stratford-upon-Avon yet to record results.
In a way, the splintering of the Tory vote will be what worries Sunak most. In Hertsmere, the seat of the Deputy PM, Oliver Dowden, for example, the Tories lost almost equally to Labour and Lib Dems and the council fell into no overall control.
So far, the results leave Sunak fighting against a narrative of heavy defeats for a party that has been dominant for 13 years and has left the country in economic turmoil.