This article originally appeared in our Elevenses newsletter.
Sir Keir Starmer didn’t let the grass grow under his feet following a humiliating drubbing at the polls last week. He removed Angela Rayner as party chairwoman and sacked Anneliese Dodds as shadow chancellor despite claiming to take ‘full responsibility’ for the collapse in support in key Labour areas. It was announced later on that the pair would be given new roles in a sign that he ‘bottled’ plans for a major clearout following a significant backlash. Either way, it was less the Night of the Long Knives and more the Night of the Wrong Knives for Starmer, who now faces a significant uphill battle.
With results now tallied across the regions the scale of the defeat had become clear by Sunday night, with Labour losing control of eight councils and shedding some 326 councillors all told. The biggest defeats came in Hartlepool, where a Conservative MP was elected for the first time in 62 years, and in County Durham, which saw Labour lose overall control of the council for the first time since 1925. Both results would have been unthinkable ten years ago and show that the party can no longer rely on traditional working-class support. Nor can they rely on people voting red because that’s what their parents did, as two slightly muddled voters in Hartlepool put it. Those days are over, and thanks to the advent of social media, people can now “sort of think for themselves”.
It wasn’t all bad news for Sir Keir. The party retained the mayoralties of London, Liverpool, West Yorkshire and Greater Manchester – and took the West of England mayoralty from the Conservatives. Mark Drakeford also delivered a blistering performance in Wales, leading Alastair Campbell to surmise that had the results been revealed in a different order the media narrative might have been “very very different”. I’m not so sure, and let us not forget that Donald Trump cried foul over the same thing last year, but that’s not to say that we should allow the positive outcomes to be overshadowed by the drubbings. After all, no one can deny there is a commonality amongst them.
For starters, the candidates that performed well put forward clear agendas. Voters knew what they all stood for. As Paul Dennett, the self-styled ‘sensible socialist’ said upon winning a second term as the mayor of Salford, “the public expect us to pick a side.” He urged Keir Starmer to look to Salford and also to the leadership of Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester to get inspiration, saying the centre-ground in politics no longer exists as it once did. His comments were echoed by Dan Norris, who beat Conservative rival Samuel Williams to become mayor in the West of England region. In his words, the key to his success was acknowledging that Labour is “still the party of the working class”, and should act accordingly.
In order to do that the party must be willing to embrace new ideas and show they have a positive vision. They should look at Dennett’s affordable housing schemes in Salford and green initiatives as well as his overhaul of public procurement policy. They should look at Preston, where the local Labour council turned the struggling northern town into the “most improved city in the UK” based on a model that promotes growth by keeping money local. They delivered a rare and resounding victory in the local elections on Thursday by presenting “clear ideas about positive and radical ways of transforming the city,” council leader Matthew Brown said after the results were announced, adding that their re-think was “exactly what the doctor ordered”.
It is now up to Starmer to look to these successes, rather than the failures, to find a way to build back in a way that sets Labour apart from the crowd. It’s either that or risk being left for dead, I fear.
Sign up to Elevenses for free here: https://www.thelondoneconomic.com/newsletter