Sir Keir Starmer has the summer to fix Labour. This seems to be the consensus developed amongst the commentariat following his Party’s narrow victory at Batley and Span, which they retained with a majority of just 323. So, what are the practical considerations for the opposition as we head towards the summer break?
Starmer’s left flank had used the prospect of a Tory victory to set the bar for a leadership challenge with Angela Rayner, Starmer’s Deputy, being positioned the frontrunner in any future competition. Coming hot on the heels of the loss of Hartlepool (and the deposit in Cheshum and Amersham), a poor result in Batley and Spen would trigger a contest with Starmers leadership barely a year old.
His stay of execution, so the narrative goes, would extend only as far as his Party conference speech in September; by which time he was to have reversed disappointing poll numbers and overcome the vaccine bounce being enjoyed by Boris Johnson’s accident-prone Government with a return to the promises of the 2019 election manifesto.
On the face of it, Labour’s prospects look grim with support for leave or remain continuing to provide the dividing line for UK politics while the party is pulled apart by its socially conservative former voters in the ‘red wall’ seats and younger and more affluent support in the big cities and university towns whose politics are informed by issue and identity politics like trans rights and Black Lives Matter. In Scotland, continued dominance by the SNP, despite the trials and tribulations of former First Minister Alex Salmond, are unlikely to see Labour rewarded in its former fiefdoms with the looming prospect of a second independence referendum sucking in all the energy.
However, there does seem to be something deeper at play. While Labour didn’t get the local election results it wanted, the focus on Hartlepool overshadowed the strength of their vote in places like Manchester and London and its ability to take combined authority areas such as the West Country and Peterborough away from the Tories while gaining overall control in Wales. As in Scotland and Westminster, incumbent parties have tended to benefit during Covid. In Hartlepool itself Starmer was unlucky with the timing in a Vote Leave constituency where a strong Brexit Party vote transferred directly to the Tories in a seat with a tradition of bucking the trend, not least by the habit of electing the mascot of the local football club as mayor.
In Amersham and Chesham, a combination of local issues and a resurgent Liberal Democrat Party, , turned a Conservative majority of 16,000 into a Lib Dem majority of 8,000 as result of tactical voting where, to paraphrase Joe Biden, integrity appears to have been on the ballot paper. The Conservatives were expected to win in Batley and Spen following the decision of the right leaning Heavy Woollen District Independents Party not to stand and split the Tory vote and George Galloways Workers Party attempting to rile up sections of the Muslim vote against Labour. Instead, Labour secured a victory despite Galloway polling over 8,000 by tapping into discontent with the Government, aided by the antics of Matt Hancock, from amongst former Lib Dem and Tory voters. The implication being that the Boris Johnson electoral juggernaut is not invincible, and that the public do care about issues of probity and accountability when it comes down to it.
Starmer has also quietly changed some of his key political, organisational and communications team, including Deborah Mattinson, Gordon Brown’s former pollster and founder of Britain Thinks, which has led to a far sharper performance in PMQs as well as a much-improved ground organisation in the by-election. The other benefit of Batley is the election of Kim Leadbeater who, by showing enormous courage in standing in the seat where her sister Jo Cox was murdered five years ago, exemplifies the kind of Labour Party Starmer says he want to build, and her story will help him communicate that better with the public. In his speech following the result there were Bidenesque tones in the way he defined what his leadership is all about. Expect more of this.
The other key moment for Starmer comes in August with the result of Unite’s General Secretary election. The union is the Labour Party’s biggest backer and amongst Starmer’s fiercest critics. Each of the candidates vying to replace Len McCluskey has emphasised a switch in focus from political to industrial matters. If this is the case then they will join with the other recently elected General Secretaries of Unison and the GMB (who together with Unite represent the big three Labour Party affiliates) who share this view. Depending on the outcome this will have an impact on Starmer’s ability to set his own policy agenda in the run up to the next General Election.
Many are predicting that the election will come sooner rather than later. It is reported that the PM wants to get it out of the way before the public inquiry into the Government’s response to the pandemic delves too deep. In tabling a bill to overturn the Fixed Term Parliament’s Act, the PM is giving himself the tools to do so which means the Starmer’s conference speech this Autumn will be crucial, but for different reasons than those imagined by his critics outlined at the top of this piece. Instead, it will be the first time the public has seen him address a proper conference audience and see him cheered to the rafters on the 6 o’clock news. The messages and soundbites will be refined and targeted with the influence of Mattinson and hopefully with politics to return to something resembling normality the rules of political gravity might once again apply.