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4 May 2024updated 07 May 2024 11:40am

Labour has triumphed but it should reflect too

The voters who abandoned Keir Starmer’s party are an early warning of potential trouble ahead.

By Andrew Marr

Let’s begin with the bleeding obvious, only because so many commentators are shying away from it: Keir Starmer’s Labour Party had a storming election night and is further poised for a storming general election later this year.

It won councils and council seats in all the areas it needs for a parliamentary majority and won the Blackpool South by-election with a dramatic swing of 26.3 per cent. The mayoral results were impressive too and although there are obvious areas of concern for Starmer to think about, the results were towards the top end of expectations.

For the Conservatives, despite Ben Houchen’s re-election in Tees Valley, the results were awful. They had assumed that the defeated Andy Street would hold on pretty easily in the West Midlands; that Susan Hall would run Sadiq Khan close in London and might even win; and that predictions last month of losing almost half of their seats would be wide of the mark. Ouch: according to the veteran pollster John Curtice, these are the worst Tory results in 40 years.

For the first time since 1996, the Conservatives won fewer councillors than the Liberal Democrats. Indeed, in the impossible situation of local “independents” having a national leader, that man or woman would be one of the more prominent figures in the UK today. 

The Tories are in very deep trouble in the north and Midlands and across the south too. Whatever colour the wall, it’s crumbling. But let’s look around for rays of hope. Oh. There aren’t any…

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Rather oddly, perhaps due to Houchen’s victory, these results have not yet produced a new Tory leadership plot. This is to be welcomed. However much yet more Tory mayhem might have been enjoyable for anti-Conservatives and journalists, a pause in plotting is good for Britain, which had been in danger of looking like a country run by panicky and treacherous idiots. But despite widespread successes for Labour, a detailed look at the elections should moderate any sense that the party is marching inevitably to a huge landslide. The strong showing by the Lib Dems, the Greens and independents helps confirm that this is an anti-Conservative electorate, not yet an enthusiastic pro-Labour one.

Again, I would say, this is a good thing: we don’t want complacent political leaders starting to behave heedlessly. No party benefits from believing that it has a right to govern.

The mayoral contests, in common with those for police and crime commissioners, help remind us just how much the devolutionary political landscape of England is changing. We talk a lot, for obvious reasons, about Wales and Scotland: but thanks to the Blair and Major governments, English politics is also changing fast. England is living through the early years of an unfamiliar political system. 

So far, this form of devolution seems to be working as it should, providing the big cities and city regions with leadership that is clearly distinct from Westminster. Steve Rotherham in Liverpool and Andy Burnham in Manchester have forged a kind of contemporary northern Labourism which is distinct from Westminster. The gap in thinking between Sadiq Khan in London, who won by a comfortable 11-point margin, and wary shadow cabinet ministers has been glaring for some time.

The same goes, obviously, on the Tory side. Ben Houchen, ennobled in Boris Johnson’s resignation honours as Baron Houchen of High Leven, is very much a Johnsonian, big-government populist compared to Rishi Sunak. He chose not to wear a blue rosette at his count and some of his literature did not even feature the word “Conservative”.

He told the Independent: “there are lots of people who will come up to me and say that they’re going to vote for me, but they probably won’t be voting for the Conservative Party in the general election.”

Street, in the West Midlands, meanwhile, had positioned himself for years as the independent-minded and vigorous voice of Birmingham enterprise. He disagreed publicly with Sunak over HS2; opposed Brexit; used green and purple in his campaign literature, not Tory blue, and said openly that he and the Prime Minister “have fallen out over a number of issues.”

For Sunak to gesture to mayoral success to claim vindication, is like leaning on someone for support while they’re trying to walk away from you – an undignified, ungainly gambit. 

But in any case, to read across easily from mayoral contests to Westminster politics is to misunderstand devolution. Voters can easily distinguish between a local champion and the national governmental record. It is easy to imagine people liking their local mayor, or council, without endorsing the record in SW1. It is harder, frankly, to imagine many people wanting to get rid of a Conservative council or mayor but applauding the record of this Conservative government. Apples and pears.

A similar argument applies to the dramatic calculation of Professor Michael Thrasher for Sky News, who used the 35 per cent of the vote projected for Labour to suggest that at a general election the party would fall short of an overall majority by 32 seats. This misses the likely effect of tactical voting, specific local issues and Labour’s ruthless targeting of the most winnable seats. 

These local elections give political enthusiasts the first proper red meat that we have enjoyed for ages; but local elections are not general elections.

All of which said, there are trends in the results to tickle Labour anxieties. The most obvious is growing evidence of the peeling-away of the Muslim and liberal left metropolitan vote, whether that is the influence of the independent candidate Akhmed Yakoob, backed by George Galloway, in the West Midlands vote; Gaza-related abstentionism in inner London, or, indeed, the Greens’ performance in Bristol (where they became the biggest party). 

Until now, Starmer has had the luxury of not facing an electoral challenge on the left equivalent to that Sunak faces from Reform UK on the right. But electoral dynamics are endlessly fluid and abhor a vacuum.

So these results may persuade the Labour leadership to be a bit more upfront and radical, particularly on the environment. With respect to Muslim voters who left Labour, Starmer has been careful to adopt a tone of decent humility. He says that he will listen and reflect. 

Good. But in truth, how much can he really do? He can make Labour’s language on Gaza more empathetic, meet Muslim community leaders and be more critical of Benjamin Netanyahu; but pivoting to call for an unconditional ceasefire or a ban on arms sales to Israel would make him look panicky and invite further demands. To put it very broadly, he made his choice long ago. He leans away from the radical left towards what Labour pollsters call, in an unfortunate phrase, “hero voters” – patriotic working-class families focused on their economic prospects. These elections strongly suggest the choice is working as he wins back key parts of the old Labour coalition, from Hartlepool to Essex. 

But nothing comes without a cost; no coalition is infinitely extendable. Aside from its Gaza problem, Labour is clearly losing some younger, more radical and more environmentally conscious voters to the Greens and the Lib Dems.

After this, all the parties are going to have to rethink a bit in the short period left before the general election. There needs to be a Labour assessment of the damage caused by the Gaza slaughter to its reputation, not just among Muslim voters; at the very least Starmer needs to talk much more about this.

The Tory rebel right, meanwhile, needs to shut up for a while. Yes, these were terrible results; but they have a right-wing Prime Minister pursuing a very radical, high-stakes anti-immigration policy and pushing tax-cutting to the very edge of economic credibility. 

What more, beyond declaring independence from the planet, do they want? Sunak is a poor explainer who has lost the attention of much of the country but who now would do the job better? The early signs have been that the rebel plot is collapsing, but I would put nothing past these people.

Before these elections, we thought we knew, in broad terms, what was happening in British politics. It seems we were right.

[See also: Mapped: The 2024 local election results]

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