It wasn’t supposed to be this way. When Keir Starmer was elected Labour leader in April last year he made it his mission to rebuild trust with voters that had abandoned Labour – not just in 2019 but since the party’s last triumph in 2005. Waking up this morning, the lack of progress is stark.
Most councils have yet to declare, but we are getting a clearer picture of the daunting task for the Labour leader, which is becoming increasingly arduous.
Labour have lost control of Harlow Council, having almost lost the Parliamentary seat under Tony Blair in 2005. They have lost seats in Nuneaton and Bedworth, whose Westminster seat Labour lost under Gordon Brown and famously failed to win back under Ed Miliband. The Tories now control Dudley Council, which saw one of two seats go blue in 2019 under Jeremy Corbyn. And now we can add Hartlepool to the list, with Starmer having overseen defeat in a seat that had never elected a Conservative MP since its creation in 1974. As more results trickle in throughout today and the rest of the weekend, the expectation is that the Conservatives will win the West Midlands and Tees Valley Metro Mayoral contests, two high-profile targets won by Theresa May and which should have been high on the list of pick-ups for Labour.
So what happens now? Well firstly, the traditional soul searching will begin, and has in fact already begun. Figures from all wings of the party have been taking to the airwaves offering their advice to the Labour leader. What is clear is that while the Conservatives have benefitted from the vaccine bounce, as well as being able once again to consolidate the votes of former UKIP/Brexit Party supporters, there is no excuse for Labour to win only 28% of the vote in a seat where only four years ago it had won 52%. While the demographic shifts seen in 2019 always pointed to a Conservative gain, Labour should have performed much better. Given the poor performance of the Green and Liberal Democrats, who would not have held on to their deposit even if they’d run a joint candidate, Labour simply did not get enough of its vote out. As has been reported in many papers over the last few weeks, the antipathy against Jeremy Corbyn may have gone, but it has been replaced by a collective shrug of the shoulders towards Starmer, which clearly depressed turnout.
Starmer’s team also has to shoulder the blame. His Political Director, the former Darlington MP turned member of the House of Lords, Jenny Chapman, orchestrated the selection of Paul Williams, the former MP for Stockton South who lost his seat like Chapman in 2019. She oversaw the selection timetable, effectively imposing him as the candidate, which, given his pro-EU leanings, now looks likely to have been a big miscalculation. There are also questions on the timings of the election. Given the popular Conservative Ben Houchen was always odds-on favourite to win re-election as Tees Valley Mayor, was it the best strategy to have two contests in the same area, on the same day?
As Campaign Coordinator and Party Chair, Angela Rayner will also come under some scrutiny. There is now speculation that she will be removed from that role, but as Deputy Leader she will remain in the Shadow Cabinet. The same can’t be said for many of her colleagues, who could be set for demotions. The Shadow Chancellor, Anneliese Dodds, the Shadow Home Secretary, Nick Thomas-Symonds, and Emily Thornberry, the Shadow International Trade Secretary, may all now find their positions in jeopardy with a reshuffle mooted to take place as early as Sunday.
Given the scale of the defeat, it would not be surprising at all if Starmer went for the panic button marked ‘big beats’ and brought back the likes of Yvette Cooper and Hilary Benn in senior roles. Given her time as Chief Secretary to the Treasury and Work and Pensions Secretary under Gordon Brown, Cooper is likely to return only if offered the Shadow Chancellor role, and would likely demand the same level of independence on setting economic policy that both Gordon Brown and Ed Balls enjoyed while in Opposition. Benn, who is no longer a Select Committee Chair could also be tempted to return, but probably only for a big role as he had briefly under Corbyn.
Perhaps the most shocking aspect of the Labour defeat in Hartlepool is just how few people are shocked by it. After the losses sustained by Labour in 2017 and 2019 across the Midlands and the North, many in the party have become numb to defeats like this. What Starmer needs to do now is shake his party out of the torpor it has been in since December 2019 and chart a new course, one way or another. Should a major reshuffle come sooner rather than later, Starmer will know he won’t be able to chop and change his team significantly again before the General Election, meaning the next few months will be crucial. Already his Conference speech in September looks to be make or break.
Keir Starmer has often been compared to David Cameron – both inherited a party with roughly 200 MPs, both parties had suffered several defeats, and both were more popular than their parties. Like Cameron in 2007, Starmer already looks likely to need to pull out a rabbit out of the hat between now and Labour Conference if he is to make it to Downing Street.
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