openDemocracyUK: Opinion

Is this the beginning of the end for Labour?

The pandemic should have been a chance to decry inequality and demand change. Instead, Labour tried to win a patriotism contest with the Tories, and lost

caroline m.jpg
Caroline Molloy
7 May 2021, 3.00pm
Keir Starmer has been attempting to ‘out-patriot’ the Tories
PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Today is a bleak day for the Labour Party.

Yesterday, England held one of its biggest ever batches of elections. Though ballots in races for local councils, police and crime commissioners and metro mayors are still being counted, the results for Labour look set to be even worse than the bad results that leader Keir Starmer was preparing the party for.

Most councils were electing only a third of their councillors yesterday, meaning dramatic shifts were hard to achieve. But the Conservatives have nonetheless seized control of councils that have been run by Labour for most of their history, in the North, Midlands and South. And Labour has also seen its vote eroded by the Lib Dems and the Greens.

The Tories took Harlow, which Labour had controlled for the past nine years, and most of the past 40, but where it lost six of the seven seats it was defending.

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In Nuneaton and Bedworth, Labour lost 11 seats to the Tories, who took control of the council for the first time since 2008.

In Redditch, the Tories won all nine of the seats up for grabs. Until 2018 Labour controlled the council – the party now has just four councillors left out of 29.

In many of its heartlands, Labour saw its majorities eroded from all sides. In Sunderland, Labour lost nine of the 22 seats it was defending, five to the Tories and four to the Lib Dems on huge swings. In Oldham, where Labour controlled 15 of the 20 seats up for grabs, it lost three to the Conservatives, two to independents, and one to the Liberal Democrats. In South Tyneside, Labour lost seats to two Greens, one Tory and an independent. In Labour-held Newcastle-upon-Tyne the party lost two seats, including its leader, to independents.

In Stockport the Lib Dems overtook Labour to become the single biggest party. The Liberal Democrats also surged in Cambridgeshire, edging the Tories out of overall control. In Sheffield, where results have just started to come in, the Labour leader has been toppled by a Green candidate on a massive swing.

The Conservatives also won overall majorities in Dudley and in Northumberland, both of which they previously ran as minority administrations, and strengthened their minority-administration’s grip on Derby, which was Labour-run as recently as 2016.

The best news so far for Labour has come from Gateshead and Rochdale, both previously Labour-controlled, where the party has managed to hold onto all its seats and overall control, and in Colchester and Southend where Labour managed to hold onto its seats and deny the Tories the chance to retake either council from current Lib/Labour/Green coalitions.

But there were very few signs of gains anywhere, and Labour made no inroads in Thurrock, where it’d claimed to be eyeing the ‘Blue Wall’ council.

So what now for Labour?

Labour’s response to the dire results would appear to be more internecine battles, with arch-Blairite Lord Mandelson and shadow communities secretary Steve Reed rolled out on the airwaves as a bulwark against grumbles from the Left.

The biggest danger for the party might not be the loss of councillors and vote share – damaging though that is to its presence in communities and its ability to campaign and recover in future.

It’s that – as one party insider told me yesterday – “the movement has moved on”.

Activists are in despair, she added, at how the party has “wasted the last two years” on backwards-looking internal battles that are an “utter turn-off”, particularly given the urgency of the mounting, interlocking crises of climate, racism and policing, as well as the economic and social fallout from COVID.

As one Labour insider told me, activists are in despair at how the party has 'wasted the last two years'

Many of those who coalesced around former leader Jeremy Corbyn have simply run out of patience with Labour’s timidity on policy and vision.

And Labour seems to have little idea how to bring these voters back, and is unsure if it even wants to. Other, newer, climate and anti-racism activists speak of their resentment at clumsy attempts to co-opt them into the party machine from party figures intimating they need the protection and support of the ‘big boys’ who ‘know how to do politics properly’. Newer activists might not always encounter the hostility that some sections of Labour demonstrated towards the Momentum movement from the start – but the patronising stance doesn’t tend to go down too well with anyone – those knocking on the doors and those answering them alike.

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And for those Scottish voters who have previously only flirted with independence, England’s results will strengthen the idea

Community organising was supposed to square this circle – to connect with people’s real concerns, building communication and trust over time, including with those who would never go near a party meeting. It’s a point Labour’s former shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, made on BBC Radio 4 this morning.

But instead Labour is disbanding its Community Organising Unit amidst bitter acrimony, one battle in what’s viewed internally as a war on Corbyn’s legacy. It appears to be reverting to its old tendency of thinking that ‘the movement’ box is ticked by its links with the unions, the largest of which, Unite, is currently distracted by a leadership battle of its own.

The lack of deep local connection was brought home forcefully in the Hartlepool by-election, where Labour’s super-Remain candidate parachuted in by party HQ, Paul Williams, was also revealed to have co-written a report that recommended the 2013 closure of the local hospital’s urgent care unit. Whilst he disputes the extent it’s fair to blame him for the cut, there was enough evidence for his opponents to label him a “hospital hypocrite”, mount a pretty effective voter suppression campaign and undermine Labour’s NHS trump card. Did it not occur to the leadership in London that hospital cuts strongly endure in local memories?

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