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For a mid-term, the govt is doing very well. That could spell a tricky summer for Starmer

Elections are back on the menu. Lots of them. After the cancelled local election round last year, every person in Britain will have at least one vote to cast in May, many people will have several.

That alone has the potential to dramatically shift the politics of the country but perhaps all the more so after a year in which the executive has been more dominant than at any time since at least WW2; perhaps since before 1689 (ironically, following on from a parliament when the executive was at its weakest). Parliament has simply not been able to adequately function in its normal way (nor councils), and the opposition leaders have made little mark.

Firstly, a quick summary of what’s up. The May elections will be for:
– The Scottish parliament
– The Welsh Senedd
– The London mayor and Assembly
– Seven multi-authority mayors (mostly very large metro areas)
– Five single-authority mayors
– 40 PCCs (or PFCCs); 36 in England and four in Wales
– 24 county councils
– 35 metropolitan councils (3 all-out)
– 28 unitary authorities (13 all-out)
– 63 district councils (3 all-out)
– Around 200 council by-elections

We looked at the prospects for the Welsh Senedd election three weeks ago and the Scottish election also deserves a thread of its own (though we’ll mention it in passing here), so let’s concentrate on England for now, not least because the results there will be a significant marker in the relations between and, even more so, within, the GB-wide parties.

These elections ought to provide a decent opportunity for the somewhat under-fire Keir Starmer. They were last contested in 2016 and 2017, the latter of which was a disastrous round for Labour: they lost a quarter of their seats and almost half their councils. The year before, Corbyn’s Labour did rather better against Cameron’s Tories but still lose a few seats in net terms and only won the projected national share by 1%. It shouldn’t be a challenging baseline for an opposition mid-term.

Except that these aren’t normal times. Despite the terrible Covid figures, among the worst in the world, the government has led the vaccination programme effectively and appears to be reaping a political benefit in terms of a pro-Con swing in the polls. The last six (from five different firms) have all produced Con leads of 4%-6%, well up on the neck-and-neck results at the end of last year.

Obviously, a lot can change between now and May but that’s closer than it might feel at the moment, with snow on the ground and temperatures well into negative Celsius. Notices of election will go up in only about six weeks’ time. Candidates serious about contesting the elections should have been selected well before now (not that they all have been – in my own area, the Tories are yet to nominate someone for the new W Yorks mayoral election). So who will be looking for what?

Labour needs to make gains. After five straight rounds of losses from 2015 on, that’s clearly essential if they’re to look at all like a potential government – and Starmer’s position is dependent on Labour believing that it looks that. Councils and councillors matter in that but under Corbyn, Labour lost the W Midlands, Tees Valley and ‘West of England’ (read Greater Bristol) mayoral races. Gaining all three will be necessary to achieve that goal, and no foregone conclusion.

We should also be watching for seat churn. Some of these seats were last fought before the Brexit referendum, the rest before the 2017 general election. There’s been a substantial realignment of voters and parties since then and a lot of attention will be paid to the (sometime) Red Wall districts: can the Tories follow up their parliamentary gains with councils seats or can Labour reverse the tide? Similarly, can Labour advance further into Remain/middle-class areas?

London remains the biggest prize though, and while Sadiq Khan is all-but certain to be returned to a second term as mayor, Labour would hope to win on first preferences and gain the extra seat needed to take a majority on the Assembly. As things stand, the biggest barrier to that might not be the Tories but the Greens.

For the Conservatives, as mentioned above, lies the opportunity of capitalising on the historic gains in 2019. Governments are expected to lose mid-term local elections so some losses can easily be dismissed. No doubt CCHQ would like a high-profile mayoral hold though, as well as strongish showings in Scotland and Wales.

What of the Lib Dems though? Local elections have traditionally been their forte and no doubt many activists will be keen to get back to comfort zone campaigning. There are opportunities, not just at council level but one key prize would be winning a constituency seat on the London Assembly, something they’ve never done before: the South-West seat, with LD strongholds of Richmond and Kingston in it, must be a possibility.

And yet I wonder whether medium-term and longer, what the Lib Dems really need is a catastrophic set of results. As things are, Ed Davey’s party is drifting to oblivion, with nothing to say nationally, no presence at all in great swathes of the country and the very real risk of being overtaken for third party status by the Greens. A few good results in a few pockets would probably be enough to prevent the kind of fundamental rethink needed to reimagine their place in the 21st-century party structure; it would breath new life into the failed (but reassuringly familiar) localism-and-bandwagon strategy. More likely, they’ll do badly but not badly enough.

Mentioning the Greens, what hopes there? They’ve been polling reasonably well by their standards, hitting 8% with Mori and 7% with YouGov and Survation this month. Stephen Bush wrote a good article yesterday on them for the New Statesman, noting that their support base may be much more about “expressive” votes than “effective” ones and could be squeezed by Labour come an election. True, but those votes were also exactly the sort that the Lib Dems picked up so readily pre-2010.

The Greens do have some real hopes though – Solihull, where they’re already the main opposition to the governing Tories, certainly offers opportunities, for example – but if they’re serious about making a mark, they ought to be aiming to market themselves as a (even ‘the’) third party. To that end, finishing third again in London ought to be a prime target, especially with one of its co-leaders standing as candidate.

Obviously, the picture beyond May 6 is very murky. What we can assess now though is risks. Boris Johnson’s position is not especially strong for someone who won an 80-seat majority 14 months ago and still commands a lead in the polls. He is where he is because he’s seen as a winner who would deliver on Brexit – as he now has, for better or worse. Thoughtful Tories will be well aware that he’s not natural PM material. Still, if he can churn out wins, he’ll be safe for now – and unless Covid gets out of hand again, he probably will churn out enough wins.

Keir Starmer’s role, by contrast, is at the same time almost identical and completely different. He too is primarily where he is to win an election, in his case not through charisma and campaigning but by appearing a PM-in-waiting. Whereas Johnson might be loved but not trusted by his party, Starmer is not loved and not especially trusted either by his. A decent set of results will steady some nerves and buy him some capital.

And what if they’re not all that decent? There won’t be a leadership challenge, despite the fulminating on the left. For that, there’d need to be 40 Labour MPs prepared to publicly nominate an alternative and there’s neither the numbers nor a credible candidate to rally around. But there would be grumbling and dissent: siren voices on the left, memorialising the ‘passion’ of Corbyn and opposing changes of style or substance.

With the Covid crisis winding down, politics-as-normal will begin to resume. When it does, the May elections will frame the Westminster Village narrative just as the Scottish results will frame the next constitutional debate. That’s not to say they’ll set the tone for the next three years given the scale of the Covid recovery operation across health, the economy, education and so on – but they’ll certainly inform the confidence with which key politicians approach those tasks.

David Herdson



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