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3 May 2024

Sir Keir Starmer continues his path to Number Ten

The 2024 local elections in England have marked another significant political shift toward Labour, with Sir Keir Starmer’s party so far gaining 52 councillors and 3 councils and the Conservatives experiencing a significant downturn, losing over 120 councillors and control of 3 councils. This has been enough for Sir Keir Starmer to call on the Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to call a General Election and to “make way and let the country move forward”. A bold statement, but he’s backed by some politically significant receipts; in May 2021, when many of these local council seats were contested, the Conservatives were six points ahead of Labour in the national polls – now, they are 20 points behind. Starmer’s line is that enough is enough, something we will hear more of in the coming days, as the Prime Minister reels over another significant loss of authority.

In Blackpool South, a key parliamentary by-election battleground, Chris Webb’s victory for Labour was particularly symbolic. This win is part of Labour’s broader strategy to reclaim what has been termed the Red Wall – traditionally Labour constituencies that have leaned Conservative since Boris Johnson’s win in 2019 and was described by Labour’s leader as “seismic”. However, despite the 26% swing to Labour, the party cannot claim all the credit, with the right-wing Reform Party taking 17% of the vote. Conservative strategists will despair at this, as it means Reform is no longer a fringe distraction, but another serious front for them to fight alongside the challenge faced by Labour. Certainly it was enough for its leader Richard Tice saying they are “rapidly becoming the real opposition”, although it is unlikely they have the electoral infrastructure to repeat this success throughout the country.

Another significant development was the taking of Rushmoor Council by Labour, which contains the town of Aldershot, known for its military heritage. This town, often dubbed as the “home of the British Army,” shows that Starmer can make territorial in-roads not seen since Tony Blair’s success in 1997. Labour’s win here is not only a referendum on the Tories’ handling of military community issues such as housing and veterans’ care. Significantly, it can also be attributed to a growing confidence in Labour’s commitment to defence, following the army’s collapse of confidence in Labour during the Jeremy Corbyn years.

However, it is not all plain sailing for Labour, with yesterday’s vote underscoring emerging challenges, particularly regarding Labour’s stance on the situation in Gaza. Labour’s position has proven divisive to Muslim voters – and others – who feel the Party should be taking a stronger stance toward Israel, potentially alienating some sections of its traditional voter base.

Labour responded to this last night by admitting the topic came up in conversations with many voters, and “strong feelings’ being expressed. As a result, Labour lost control of Oldham Council, where two councillors had quit earlier in the year on this issue.

England’s political shift suggests a strategic rejuvenation of Labour since Starmer took the reins from Jeremy Corbyn. Under Corbyn, the party often focused on broad, nationalised policies and a staunch left-wing ideology that, while energising many within the base, failed to capture the broader electoral middle ground necessary for General Election and local victories. 

Starmer’s leadership, by contrast, has been marked by a steady pivot towards the centre-ground of politics, aiming to rebuild trust with traditional Labour voters who felt alienated by the previous leadership’s direction. He’s yet to be someone voters can be excited or inspired by, like Tony Blair and his team in 1997, but his clinical reform of the Party is perhaps demonstrating to voters a calm, sensible and firm leadership, which they can get behind.

As they currently stand, yesterday’s results makes a Labour victory almost inevitable at the next General Election, with huge ramifications for domestic, international and business policy areas. One thing is for sure, in less than a year, the UK will likely be an entirely different political landscape, resulting in new opportunities and new challenges for all those who have a stake in it.

By Simon Benson 

 

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