Labour’s devastating summer of appalling council by-election results

Sir Keir Starmer: Labour’s bad record in council by-elections

Council by election results are not always a guide to a party’s performance in a general election because local issues can determine how people vote. But they are a guide to how the most politically active think since the people who vote are likely to be those most interested their local community. They are also a guide to how each political party can get their vote out and are real results – not an opinion poll.

Whatever way you put it this summer- with a couple of exceptions- has been a disaster for Sir Keir’s Starmer’s new model Labour Party. As well as the high profile Parliamentary loss of Hartlepool to the Tories, only just holding on to Batley and Spen and the collapse of the Labour vote to the Lib Dems in Chesham and Amersham it is the local council by-election results that have been particularly bad.

Since this is against the background of a pretty incompetent Tory government facing allegations of corruption and mucking up people’s summer holiday arrangements by constantly changing the rules and causing confusion about what, if any, rules to follow to keep safe from Covid 19, it is no mean achievement for Labour to lose more electoral support.

The by-election results also show that underneath the serenity of a successful and well organised NHS vaccination programme the political scene is pretty volatile. Council seats that should have naturally stayed under the same party’s control are falling to other parties with enormous changes in vote share. The trouble is that in England and Scotland Labour is not the beneficiary. The exception is Wales. In the one Welsh by-election in the Rhondda, Labour did do well with the Tory share falling significantly.

The pattern that is emerging for Labour- from both the Midlands and the North- is that the Tories are consolidating the gains they made in 2019 and wooing the working class vote in once safe Labour areas. If this continues Labour under Starmer might lose more Parliamentary seats in a snap election in 2023 than Corbyn lost in 2019 and the Conservative Home dream list of scores of fresh Tory gains in Yorkshire , the North East, and the East and West Midlands become reality. In Yorkshire alone this means 11 seats could go.

Tories consolidating 2019 election gains

Examples of consolidation include Tory by-election wins from Labour in Grimsby, Bassetlaw and Sandwell and North East Lincolnshire. In Sandwell the Tory share of the vote was up 20 pc, the Labour share down 13.7 per cent. In Bassetlaw, the East Retford South seat saw the Labour share down 47 per cent and the Tory share up 25 per cent with the intervention of an Independent.

Even more concerning for Labour should be by-election results in Leicester, Harlow and Basildon. In Leicester Tories gained their first seat on the council with an 18 per cent rise in vote share while Labour slumped nearly 16 per cent. With the full council up for election next year, the Tories are hoping for large scale gains and possibly one of the city’s Parliamentary seats soon.

In Harlow and Basildon Tories took council seats in Labour areas like Pitsea in Basildon and Mark Hall in Harlow. The Labour vote share was down 16 pc in Basildon and Tories up nearly 15pc. In Basildon the Tory share was up 24 per cent enough to take the seat from Labour who kept a 41 per cent vote share. These new towns used to have Labour councils and Labour MPs like Hemel Hempstead in Hertfordshire. In Hemel there are now no Labour councillors.

Greens having remarkable results

The Tories are on the defensive in rural England and the South and West of England. But the main beneficiaries are the Liberal Democrats and the Greens. The Greens had a remarkable result in Somerset going from nowhere to 64.9 per cent vote share when the Liberal Democrats did not contest the seat. They held on to a seat in Staines just outside London, and gained seats in Aldeburgh in Suffolk and Mid Sussex from the Tories. In Aldeburgh they just pipped the Tories with a 26 per cent rise in vote share and in Balcombe, Mid Sussex they won a little more convincingly with a 13 per cent rise.

Lib Dems winning “safe” Tory council seats

The Liberal Democrats also did well winning seats from the Tories in Knaresborough, King’s Lynn, all with big swings in their vote share ( 28pc in King’s Lynn and 20 per cent in Knaresborough). In some seats the Labour vote switched to the Lib Dems, in other cases it remained steady but the Lib Dems leapfrogged Labour. The Lib Dems also took a seat from the Tories in Cobham in Dominic Raab’s Esher constituency with a 18.4 per cent rise in vote share. Labour did benefit on East Devon council when the voters switched to Labour when the Lib Dems did not stand winning a seat at Honiton.

In Scotland Labour lost a council seat to the SNP on West Lothian council, Vote share was down by nine per cent.

What does this all mean? Difficult to gauge from a clutch of by-election results, but it does suggest the electorate is particularly volatile and not necessarily enamoured with the Tories in rural areas. But it shows Labour has a long way to go.

The worst scenario would be if the Labour Party continued to haemorrhage votes to the Tories in the provincial cities and to the Greens and Liberal Democrats elsewhere. In the end the internal disputes could lead to the Socialist members permanently switching to the Greens and the moderate members switching to the Liberal Democrats. It would mean the end of Labour as a mainstream party. It hasn’t come to that yet, but could be unless Labour comes forward with a much more aggressive and thought provoking agenda.

Labour: Revival or Nemesis?

Sir Keir Starmer: Labour leader Pic credit: BBC

Labour needs popular policies that attract people from Carlisle to Camden

It would rather cruel to say Sir Keir Starmer named after Labour founder Keir Hardie should be the leader that led to its nemesis. But the weekend’s election results in the North East and the Midlands show it is Boris Johnson’s Conservatives that are the new champions of working class voters there not Labour.

That is not to belittle Labour’s achievements in Wales, Cambridgeshire, the West of England and the South Coast. In Worthing for example, Labour has gone from having no councillors there for 51 years, to a place where the Tories are reduced to a majority of just one.

But it is to say that Labour have lost the plot. They are fighting quite a different Tory Party than under Theresa May or David Cameron and they don’t seem to have got the message. This Tory Party is a high spending, interventionist party wrapped up in the trappings of Rule Britannia and law and order. It is prepared to spend loads of cash in targeted working class areas where it can garner votes and is happy for an image of Gunboats at Dawn with the French in Jersey over fishing rights knowing that a NATO ally is unlikely to open fire.

For Labour there is a choice it can either ape the flag waving ,law and order, overseas aid cutting agenda of the Tories or it could look for new ground to take on the changed Tory Party.

I have four ideas for the latter and they all affect millions of people whether they live in the North, Midlands or South of the country. If successfully implemented they could change hearts and minds.

Having a decent affordable home for Generation Rent

The first is finding a home to live. For younger people under the age of 40 this is rapidly becoming an unobtainable dream as house prices continue to surge way above wages. They are either stuck in expensive flat sharing or forced to continue living in their parent’s home. No chance to aspire to start a family there. And with little council house building social housing is not easily available for the poor.

For a real analysis of this problem read a book called Home Truths by Liam Halligan. It is a comprehensive analysis of what has gone wrong. Labour could do little better than plagiarise the ideas in this book as part of their manifesto.

The Tories – though promising to build more homes- are on the back foot on this one. Their second largest group of donors are property developers – whose rationale has to be to get the most profits for their shareholders and investors. This, as the book explains, means ensuring that house prices continue to rise and they will only rise if they drip feed rather than grossly expand house building. So here’s one policy that will appeal whether you are in Brighton or Barnsley- and it can be sloganised in simple terms as it is both aspirational and a basic need.

Time for Labour to embrace the new world of freelance working

The second is the new world of work. The old huge battalions of workers in the mines, shipyards and even steel no longer exist – the new world of work is often hi tech , freelance contracts or new businesses or low paid work in Amazon or Deliveroo. Yet neither the outdated national insurance system nor employment law helps them. Ed Miliband promised a small step in reforming national insurance under his leadership – to ensure at least the self employed millions got basic help. And this group were the worst off under the furlough scheme. Again the government is weak in this area and whether you have a start up in Maidenhead or Middlesbrough you will benefit.

Women’s rights

Then there is the equality issue -particularly for women. Johnson is not particularly popular among women. And women are half the electorate. There are still issues of inequality, low pay and a law and order issue over women’s safety – so a women’s bill of rights to end injustice and make them safer in the streets would be very popular.

Equal access to the green revolution

Finally there is the issue of green policies. Yes the government is committed to these – but will help be distributed fairly or will electric cars be the prerogative for the better off. There is an area where carefully pointing out the problems and promising to do something about it will be attractive.

These are just some ides.. But whatever happens Labour has to up its game and get out of this continual internal battle talking to themselves and talk to the voters instead. Otherwise it will lead to its traditional male working class voters permanently voting Conservative and its more left wing voters backing the Green Party. It could disappear down a hole in the middle if it doesn’t get its act together and decide what it stands for.