Labour ‘facing hugely difficult terrain’ at May elections in Keir Starmer’s first real test, experts warn

Millions expected to head to the polls in Great Britain on 6 May

Ashley Cowburn
Political Correspondent
Tuesday 20 April 2021 17:20 BST
Today's daily politics briefing

Labour will be “on trial” at the May elections with the party facing a “very difficult” contest in the first major test of Sir Keir Starmer’s leadership at the ballot box, experts have suggested.

It comes as millions of eligible voters prepare to head to the polls across Great Britain on 6 May, with contests in both the Scottish and Welsh parliaments, alongside a mixture of elections for councillors, local and regional mayors in England.

Due to the disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic and a slew of elections being postponed last year, the event is being dubbed “Super Thursday” and will also coincide with a critical by-election in Hartlepool.

Speaking at an event hosted by the UK in a Changing Europe, professor Jane Green, the director at Nuffield politics research centre and co-director at the British Election Study, said “we shouldn’t underestimate the dilemma the Labour Party is in”.

“I talked about this pincer movement that’s happening nationally, with the Liberal Democrats and also the Conservatives and the Labour leave side, but we shouldn’t underestimate Labour’s difficulties in Scotland.”

She added: “Labour’s electoral dominance in Scotland has collapsed and we could see the Conservative Party really kind of solidify their second place in Scotland because they are picking up support from people who don’t want independence but who do want to leave the EU.”

“You could see in Wales Labour’s support drop off further and one of the most close contests in Wales and we’ll see this important Red Wall test in the council elections but also in the Hartlepool by-election.”

Describing it as “hugely difficult terrain” for the party in its first electoral test since Sir Keir succeeded Jeremy Corbyn last spring, she went on: “This question of whether Labour can make an electoral recovery was hard off the back of Brexit, but it’s also hard in the context of coronavirus.

“So, profoundly difficult for the Labour Party and I think therefore all of those different tests in Scotland, in Wales, in the urban areas, the shires, these are all really important tests for Labour because they’ve got to work out what their path back is going to be. This is going to be a very difficult context I think for Keir Starmer”.

Echoing her views, professor Michael Thrasher, an elections analyst, said “Labour’s on trial” next month, stressing that if the party failed to do well in Scotland or Wales, “the only succour for Labour is to do well in English shires and replicate what Blair did in ’97”.

“Therefore, it’s not only got to regain Derbyshire in the county elections, it’s got to make gains also in places like Lancashire and Nottinghamshire which allowed the Tories to take over those councils, and also across southern England.”

Professor Thrasher insisted Labour did not have many opportunities before the next election they can appeal to southern voters, adding: “If we assume the general election is in 2024… then really 2023 is the great proving ground for Labour in these areas. 

“I don’t think they are in a position to do very well in the county elections in 2021 and that means they only get 2023 really to demonstrate some strength in these areas”.

On the Conservatives, he said: “My expectation is the Tories will lose some ground in the shire counties and they gain ground in certain regions where the metropolitan elections are taking place.”

Professor Green added the elections next month will be a “fascinating first test” of whether the Conservatives’ encroachment “into the notorious Red Wall is going to persist”. 

She said: “There have been important changes since December 2019 too: Nigel Farage has exited the main stage of British politics, Brexit has been officially done, or at least in the process of being resolved, Labour has a new leader, and of course the Conservatives have presided over this enormous event in terms of the coronavirus crisis.”

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