Keir Starmer is likely to do well in May’s local elections, his biggest test yet

The success of the British vaccination programme may have strengthened Boris Johnson’s position on Brexit, but Labour ought to make gains this spring

John Rentoul
Saturday 06 February 2021 15:00 GMT
In May, we may see the real Keir Starmer unmasked
In May, we may see the real Keir Starmer unmasked (REUTERS)

For a time, the spoonerism of Keir Starmer’s name, Steer Calmer, seemed to many Labour people a good slogan and a welcome change. But recently, having guided the party out of the currents that were threatening to destroy it on the rocks, the leader is accused of being becalmed. 

“There’s something missing,” an anonymous Labour MP was quoted as saying in The Times today. “We’re not in the relegation zone any more, but equally we’re not ahead of the Tories in the polls and, given the mess they’re in, we ought to be.” 

The image that summed up that feeling of underperformance was a video of Starmer on Thursday, apologising for having made a mistake at Prime Minister’s Questions the previous day, but wearing a mask. Muffled and becalmed: thus the doubts about Starmer are allowed to creep in. 

Much of this, though, is a side effect of lockdown paralysis. All of politics is muffled and becalmed, because people are not meeting, gossiping, agitating and protesting. The government has entered a steadier phase since Dominic Cummings is no longer in No 10 breaking things. And the only story that people are interested in is the vaccines. The entire nation is transfixed by the numbers receiving their first dose. It is like the bar on a computer download. Today we are up to 17.2 per cent complete. 

I pointed out last week that the success of the British vaccination programme, and the relative failure of the EU one, has changed the post-Brexit argument. That has strengthened Boris Johnson’s position. It is hard to believe that in the autumn Conservative MPs were talking about getting the 55 letters to Sir Graham Brady, the chair of the 1922 Committee, to trigger a leadership election. 

And it has made Starmer’s job harder. I didn’t expect him to underline the point, being so scalded by the implication that Labour wanted to be part of the EU effort that he failed to listen to the prime minister’s actual words in the Commons – which were correct: that Starmer had wanted the UK to remain in the European Medicines Agency. 

Nor did I expect Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, to say, in effect, that the EU put its “unity” above saving lives. “I can’t even imagine what it would have meant for Europe, in terms of unity, if one or more member states had access to vaccines and not the others,” she said yesterday. 

Soon, though, the lockdown paralysis will ease and in Britain the winds of electoral change will start blowing again. The government announced yesterday that local elections in England will go ahead on 6 May, and the Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly elections are likely to do so too, so everyone in the UK, except in Northern Ireland, where assembly elections are due next year, will get to vote. 

In this biggest electoral test between general elections, Starmer is likely to be able to claim that Labour is making progress. These elections, including the ones postponed from last year, were last fought in 2016 and 2017, when Labour under Jeremy Corbyn was doing badly. Indeed, the local elections in 2017, a few weeks before the general election, were one big reason for thinking that Theresa May had done the right thing in going to the country. 

Given that Labour is doing better in the opinion polls now, the party ought to make gains. The advantage to Starmer of not being Corbyn has not yet been cashed in at the ballot box. The biggest prize in England is the mayoralty of the West Midlands, which Andy Street won for the Tories by a 0.8 per cent margin in the inaugural election four years ago. Liam Byrne, Labour former cabinet minister and MP for Birmingham Hodge Hill, is trying to unseat him. 

Labour might win back its majority in the Welsh parliament, where Mark Drakeford is currently governing in coalition with the Liberal Democrats. Scotland is not looking good for either Labour or the Tories, as Nicola Sturgeon continues to carry all before her. But Boris Johnson will probably hold on to enough of the 2019 Tory vote in northern England and the Midlands to claim success. 

Fighting for actual votes will purge politics of some of the woollier demands of leaders to “articulate a vision” or to “set out an agenda”, the current fashion being for one involving levelling up. It will clarify what voters feel about the Starmer-led Labour Party, which has yet to be tested in actual combat. There won’t be the usual chance for door-to-door canvassing, but the US elections showed that social distancing is no obstacle to higher turnout. 

Finally, 13 months after Starmer was elected leader on 4 April, we will find out what voters really think of Labour’s new management. 

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