The Tories Gave Keir Starmer an Open Goal, but He Still Missed the Target

Last week’s election performance by the British Labour Party was deeply underwhelming. Despite enjoying every advantage, Keir Starmer has failed to convert a popular backlash against Boris Johnson’s government into support for his own plodding leadership.

Sir Keir Starmer congratulates winning Labour candidates in the Cumberland Council election on May 6, 2022 in Carlisle, England. (Anthony Devlin / Getty Images)

Barnet is one of the London councils that the Labour Party won control of in last week’s English local elections. Paying an early morning visit to the district after the results were in, the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, declared this was a “turning point for Labour.” He went on to boast his party was winning from “coast to coast” and that “we had sent a message to the prime minister.”

However, with a net gain for Labour of just 29 council seats in England, compared with 191 for the Liberal Democrats and 61 for the Greens, it was a message that lacked any kind of serious electoral menace. Despite receiving the kind of positive media coverage that his predecessors Gordon Brown or Ed Miliband could only have dreamed of, let alone Jeremy Corbyn, Starmer is still showing little evidence of an ability to connect with voters.

The Johnson Backlash

It was unquestionably a bad day for the ruling Conservatives. As the results trickled in last Friday, what commentators had anticipated to be a measured protest against Boris Johnson’s government became a full-scale Tory rout, with 491 local government councillors lost to the party.

The municipal authorities taken by Labour included Wandsworth and Westminster, two affluent London areas that had long been Tory fiefdoms. Labour’s takeover of the newly constituted Cumberland council in northwest England was also a blow to the Conservatives. This local authority area encompasses three Tory-held parliamentary constituencies, and the result suggests that the government will have a hard time holding onto them at the next general election.

However, despite these successes, the real story of last Thursday was one of Labour underperformance. The only exception to this rule was Wales. While the party gained 115 new councillors, over half of them hailed from Welsh Labour, which has a distinctive political profile.

Under the leadership of Mark Drakeford, who serves as first minister in the Welsh regional government, the party has successfully reinvented itself in office around a recognizably social democratic program. In 2021, when the Tories triumphed in England’s local elections, Labour defied expectations to achieve its biggest ever Welsh Assembly vote. It built on this performance last week by taking 66 new councillors — an emphatic win.

Elsewhere, Labour’s gains were much patchier. In Scotland, the party elected 20 new councillors while the Tories lost 63; in England, there was a net gain of just 29 versus Tory losses of 342. The headline-grabbing advances in London were tarnished by the loss of Harrow to the Tories. Labour also forfeited the mayoralties of Croydon and Tower Hamlets.

A Tale of Two Boroughs

Croydon is a fiefdom of Labour’s right-wing faction whose council leadership was on the hook for catastrophic financial mismanagement and a determination to favor the interests of property developers over those of local residents. The Tories successfully ran against the Labour incumbent with a platform of fiscal conservativism that promised to end the waste of local resources.

In Tower Hamlets, Labour’s defeat came at the hands of a very different political challenger. The victor, Lutfur Rahman, won the mayoralty on a clear left-wing platform for his Aspire party, which is only organized in Tower Hamlets. Aspire also took 24 of 45 council seats, winning 22 of those seats at the expense of Labour.

Aspire is the successor to Rahman’s previous vehicle, Tower Hamlets First (THF). Rahman and his allies began to organize against Labour in an area where the party has long taken the support of working-class British Asian voters for granted. He first won the mayoral election in 2010 as an independent and was reelected for THF four years later.

However, an election commissioner subsequently disqualified Rahman from office on extraordinary grounds, invoking a nineteenth-century law against “spiritual influence” in UK elections. The law was originally meant to stop Irish Catholic priests from supporting the Home Rule Party. The commissioner, barrister Richard Mawrey, invoked it on the grounds that imams in Tower Hamlets had endorsed Rahman.

Mawrey explicitly stated his belief that Muslim voters could not be trusted to think for themselves:

A distinction must be made between a sophisticated, highly educated and politically literate community and a community which is traditional, respectful of authority and, possibly, not fully integrated with the other communities living in the same area.

The Anglican cleric Giles Fraser described Mawrey’s verdict on Rahman as “a judgment steeped in the history and prejudices of English cultural superiority,” while a legal commentator compared it to “a report from a District Collector to the Lieutenant-Governor of Bengal circa 1935.”

The Tower Hamlets electorate doesn’t seem to have been too impressed with Mawrey’s decision to oust Rahman, either. After completing his five-year suspension from elected office, the former mayor defeated Labour candidate John Biggs by a bigger margin than in 2014.

Completing the uneven picture for Labour, the Tories made advances elsewhere in England. Examples include Hartlepool, where Keir Starmer had already lost a high-profile parliamentary by-election a year ago, and in many former Labour strongholds whose Westminster seats were captured by Boris Johnson in 2019, such as North Staffordshire’s Newcastle-under-Lyme.

An Open Goal

Labour should be doing much better than this. Like the rest of Europe and indeed the world, Britain is in the grips of a cost-of-living crisis. Inflation is expected to reach double digits by the end of the year, and economists are forecasting that a recession is imminent.

To make matters worse, the Conservative chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak has insisted that nothing can be done to relieve these economic pressures. His woefully inadequate response to spiraling energy prices is a small tax rebate and a compulsory loan to cover a portion of rising fuel costs, to be paid back by those who receive it at quarterly intervals.

Meanwhile, the personal standing of Boris Johnson has collapsed after revelations that he hosted and took part in as many as seventeen parties in Downing Street while the country was under pandemic lockdown restrictions. The image of Johnson partying while the rest of the country had to abide by stringent rules on social gatherings has destroyed confidence in the prime minister. In recent months, his premiership has been almost entirely focused on day-to-day survival.

This conjuncture shaped Labour’s strategy going into the elections. Starmer focused on the “PartyGate” scandal and made sure it was the top issue in his weekly parliamentary questions to the prime minister.

In relation to the cost of living crisis, Starmer and his shadow chancellor have been pushing the idea of a windfall tax on the oil companies to fund a £600 energy bill relief payment. But there was one big problem with making this a central plank of Labour’s local election campaign: no matter how many seats Labour won, it would never be in a position to deliver on the pledge. The idea of a windfall tax may have put the Tories on the spot over their inaction, but as a positive promise it was a gimmick that fooled nobody.

This was all that Starmer had to offer. In areas where local Labour leaderships had a decent, relevant manifesto to put forward — such as Preston, with its ongoing community wealth-building project, or parts of London where Labour politicians put the stress on their plans to tackle housing shortages — the electorate by and large rewarded them.

On the other hand, when a narrative about national politics dominated Labour’s campaigning message, Labour wasn’t rewarded with substantial votes. Indeed, the fact that the other opposition parties did better than Labour in England shows that Starmer has been unable to associate aversion to the Tories in government with support for his own leadership.

Exit Stage Right?

This was another subpar electoral performance, on top of Starmer’s existing record of local council failures and by-election embarrassments. His inability to generate any kind of electoral enthusiasm is now well documented. There is simply no clamor for the anaemic, authoritarian, and socially conservative brand of Labour politics by which Starmer has defined himself.

Even so, Thursday’s election might have been enough to rescue Starmer from another round of speculation about the future of his leadership. However, new developments have intervened to generate more trouble for the Labour leader. Having made so much hay from the revelations about Boris Johnson’s partying, Starmer is now under intense scrutiny for his own alleged breaches of the lockdown rules.

While campaigning in a previous set of local elections in April 2021, Starmer attended a dinner in Durham that seems to have been in contravention of the limits on social gatherings. Tory-supporting newspapers have pressed the Durham police force to reopen an investigation. Starmer has now promised to resign if he is found to have broken the rules, as has his deputy leader, Angela Rayner. These elections could well prove to be the last ones fought under Starmer’s leadership — and given how poor the results were, that would be no bad thing.