The party is stealthily gliding towards electoral competitiveness. It is quietly, but self-assuredly crawling back to relevance. Without fuss or fortune, it is moving closer to electoral victory. Victory does not require a Labour majority, but a repeat of the 2010 general election result; when the Conservative Party deprived Labour of a majority, so Labour must seek to at least deprive the Conservative Party of their majority. The recent local election results portray a party that is not submerged in a quagmire of mediocrity or of a submarine that has reached the depths of despair, but a party that is on the move and moving along an upward trajectory.
Starmer is similar to Iain Duncan Smith as a leader of the opposition, as both have seen their leadership style, personality and public speaking delivery questioned. Both have been accused of being too timid, introverted, awkward, stilted and stiff. Iain Duncan Smith proclaimed at the Conservative Party Conference in 2003 that, “the quiet man (referring to himself) is here to stay and he is turning up the volume.” He was soon made redundant.
Starmer, like IDS, is a quiet man and he is turning up the volume with these local election results.
The Labour Party performed particularly well in London, gaining control of Barnet, Wandsworth and Westminster councils, as well as a suite of councils in incredibly interesting areas of the country. Labour gained control too of Rossendale and Kirklees councils in the north, as well as Worthing, Crawley and Southampton in the south. Labour is making important gains in southern areas outside of London, where demographic changes are helping to make the electorates there more receptive to the party. In areas such as Worthing and Crawley there are more graduates and young families who are moving there and leaving London; hence the populations are becoming younger and more ethnically diverse. As the Democrats in the USA capitalise on similar demographic changes in states such as Nevada and Georgia, Labour is starting to do the same in the UK. Starmer’s great asset is that he is not feared by swathes of the electorate in the same way that Jeremy Corbyn was. This will help Labour gain more votes in the coastal areas of southern England and the commuter towns that lie in London’s shadow.
Labour also made some notable seat gains. The party gained seats in Redditch, Southend-on-Sea and Hillingdon, places that have never been traditional Labour supporting areas. Starmer cuts a reassuring, reliable, solid figure, in much the same way that Clement Attlee did and this aids the party’s appeal in areas with many older residents and home owners.
Aside from England, Labour regained second place in Scotland and gained Bridgend and Blaenau Gwent councils in Wales, despite being the incumbent government in Cardiff. With both Mark Drakeford and Anas Sawar popular and well-respected with their electorates, there is potential for further electoral improvement in both countries, especially in Scotland.
There were some disappointing results.
The party is still losing in areas that it should not be if it were on course for a majority at the next general election. The leadership should be disgruntled by the fact that the party lost council seats in places such as Salford, South Tyneside, Oldham and Walsall. These areas were once safe Labour seats. But this only underlines the challenges Starmer faces. These results are not a product of Starmer’s failings, but a demonstration that the electoral trend of C2 and D type voters in deindustrialised areas continue to switch from Labour to Conservative, a trend first seriously translated into results in 2017.
Being leader of the opposition is a thankless task.
If you are bold you are accused of being a reckless radical (Corbyn). If you are cautious, you are accused of being calculating (Miliband). Starmer faces this challenge on top of the fact that he inherited a party that had just recorded its worst electoral performance since 1935, a party that was submerged in a swamp of antisemitism and a party that teetered on the verge of bankruptcy. Then came a pandemic that benefitted the poll ratings of incumbents across the world, from Johnson to Macron to Merkel, from Morrison to Ardern. The pandemic constrained what Starmer could talk about.
He was not asked about his vision for the country, but about masks, tests and vaccines.
Surely a Labour victory, given that the party has not won a majority for seventeen years, would be to form the next government, which could be a minority or a coalition administration. The projected national vote shares released by the BBC and Sky News during the local election results illustrate that the party is on course to achieve this. So the Starmer submarine is not sinking, weighed down by incompetence or submerged in a morass of disunity, but it is stealthily, silently swimming to victory. A quiet, understated victory with the volume turned up a little.