“When people go to vote today, the choice will be simple. Vote Labour to secure our economy, protect our NHS and rebuild our country – or continue with the same old, unequal economy under the Conservatives,” writes Anneliese Dodds, the Shadow Chancellor, in a piece for LabourList today setting out where she has been campaigning and why Labour candidates deserve votes. People across the country will be choosing around 5,000 councillors, 13 directly-elected mayors, 25 London Assembly members, 39 police and crime commissioners, 129 seats in the Scottish parliament, 60 seats in the Senedd and a new MP for Hartlepool.
Keir Starmer was chosen to be Labour leader last year primarily on the basis that he would be electable. After a dismal general election result, anecdotally it seemed party members wanted the guy who ‘looked like a Prime Minister’, and his leadership campaign promised to bring more unity and professionalism to Labour as part of the crucial mission to make it an election-winning machine. This is his first electoral test, indicating whether he can deliver on those pledges. Unfortunately, this huge and complex set of contests comes at an inopportune time: much has been said about a ‘vaccine bounce’, and this effect is bound to be cited often by Labour spokespeople in the following days.
The vaccine roll-out has gone well, the economy has started to be unlocked and many of the coronavirus support schemes have yet to come to an abrupt end that will likely be too abrupt for many. Labour sources have been managing expectations for some months and those close to the leadership are keen to emphasise their optimism for the coming years but very willing to say the elections taking place today will not be good for Labour. “It’s a pandemic election” and Starmer has a “mountain to climb”, we are reminded. It is nonetheless fair to expect some progress if we are to believe that it is possible for Labour to win the next general election.
Where you set the bar for ‘good results’ this week depends on whether you think Labour should expect to win the next general election or should simply be looking to make some progress compared to December 2019. I think it most useful to consider the task that Keir Starmer’s Labour Party has set for itself, which is to reverse the trend that we have seen accelerate over recent years: losing in towns while piling up majorities in cities, and losing in Scotland. Bearing in mind that this decline has played out in the long term and cannot be reversed quickly, movement along these lines is a reasonable measure of success.
There will be three races that people will particularly have their eye on. First, Hartlepool, which will dominate coverages of these elections as one of the first to declare. Second, the Tees Valley mayoral race, where Jessie Joe Jacobs is challenging Tory incumbent Ben Houchen. Third, the West Midlands mayoral contest, in which Liam Byrne is hoping to unseat Andy Street. Although: a) it is rare for a government to gain a seat in a parliamentary by-election; b) it was a shock when the Tories won Tees Valley in 2017; and c) Byrne thinks he should beat Street “easily”, recent polling means it would be a surprise if Labour won any of the three – and yet Labour should really be making progress here, according to Starmer’s own ambitions for the party.
Labour should win at least the West Yorkshire and West of England mayoral contests, while making some gains in places like Nottinghamshire if it wants to show that the 2019 patterns can be reversed. In Wales, the question is whether Labour will have to rule with the help of another party. It is worth remembering that a year ago, polling showed the Tories would overtake Labour and even get a majority. Mark Drakeford’s leadership during Covid means the picture has massively changed. (See Elliot’s latest report from Wales.) In Scotland, Anas Sarwar is going down very well but after just ten weeks it probably won’t be enough to shift votes yet. Scottish Labour is going to have a tough time holding onto marginals East Lothian, Edinburgh Southern and deputy leader Jackie Baillie’s Dumbarton. (Check out my piece on how things are going in Glasgow.)
This is going to be tough. Turnout of Labour supporters will be decisive, as ever. Many LabourList readers will already be out on the doorstep, helping local candidates. I will leave you with Starmer’s message for today: “The choice at this election is simple: a Labour Party in your community that is creating jobs, tackling crime and protecting our NHS or a Conservative Party that handing out contracts to their mates, or wasting taxpayers’ money on contracts that don’t deliver. Vote Labour today for more jobs, more police on the streets and an NHS that is protected. Vote Labour for a Britain that works for you.”
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