Local elections: Labour has become a metropolitan party disconnected from its political roots
For Keir Starmer the elections on May 6 have become more of a challenge than an opportunity. Having brought Labour back level with the Conservatives in the polls last autumn, they turned against him again from February this year. Despite the seemingly endless narrative of prime ministerial scandal and the public’s declared scepticism as to Boris Johnson’s ethics, we have yet to see any hard evidence that they are ready to take a serious look at the opposition. It is a tough backdrop for what is a monumental electoral test for Labour.
If Labour is to be taken seriously at the next general election it needs to change the electoral weather. The culmination of the last fifteen years’ trends, whose origins can be traced back at least to the 1980s, is that it has become a metropolitan party whose political soul is now to be found among the middle class professionals, the public sector workers and cultural liberals of London and the conurbations.
One of the few certainties of this week’s election is that Sadiq Khan will be re-elected as Mayor of London with an increased share of the vote, while it is quite possible that Labour will gain a majority on the Greater London Assembly for the first time. In Manchester Andy Burnham’s coronation as “King of the North” appears to be baked in. In Bristol, Labour’s Dan Norris looks well placed to become Mayor of the West of England. These, rather than the working class towns of the North and Midlands, are now Labour’s heartlands.
Of course for Labour their strength in London and the big cities is welcome. But it has come at a huge cost. Labour cannot prevail in a general election as a sectional party of urban progressives. Even if it were to win every seat in London, it would still be more than 100 short of a majority, and outside its hotspots it has never been weaker with the Tories having cut a swathe through Labour’s Red Wall of coalfields, cotton belts and manufacturing towns. This week’s elections offer one of the very few opportunities before the next general election to determine if it can claw back those losses.
Unfortunately for Starmer Labour is facing an uphill struggle. With the Conservatives still up to ten points ahead in the polls the prospects for gains in the Red Wall are looking shaky. It could get even worse in one of Labour’s last industrial strongholds – Hartlepool. The constituency is the only parliamentary by-election and a Survation poll released yesterday gave the Tories’ candidate a 17 point lead over Labour. It would make Sir Keir the second opposition leader to lose a by-election to the government since 1982. A defeat in Hartlepool would be a watershed for Starmer’s leadership and would necessitate a major strategic rethink.
Before Covid, Labour would have been eyeing the mayoral elections in the West Midlands and Tees Valley as the first step towards a Red Wall revival. Tory incumbents Andy Street and Ben Houchen both won very narrowly in 2017 and the mayoral areas between them contain 11 seats which the Tories have gained in the last two general elections. But with the Tories ahead in the polls both of them are favourites to hang on.
Elsewhere Labour’s ambition is more about holding what they have. They will be more confident about retaining four Senedd seats in North Wales which now have Tory MPs at Westminster. They may also have net gains among the 5,000 council seats which are to be elected, although Labour may have some high profile losses in former strongholds like County Durham and Rotherham. But both major parties will be looking closely at the detail of these results.
The Tories will want to know whether their embattled Prime Minister still has the reach into working class areas to convert their general election gains into more solid local foundations. For Labour it may be more about making it through with no more setbacks. Keir Starmer has a mountain to climb, and these elections are likely to confirm that he and his party are still in the foothills.