Voters will deliver their verdicts on Keir Starmer’s first year as Labour leader as the UK goes to the polls in a bumper crop of elections tomorrow.
The votes – many of which were delayed by a year owing to the coronavirus pandemic – include the Scottish parliamentary election, which could pave the way for a second independence referendum. But for Starmer, the key contests are the London mayoral race and local council polls, and a by-election in Hartlepool triggered by the resignation of Labour MP Mike Hill.
The outcomes will signal just how far the opposition party needs to go to achieve success at the next general election.
Who is winning in the polls?
The country has faced significant challenges and changes since the last general election, in December 2019, which resulted in a landslide majority for the Conservative Party.
A University of Essex survey of 3,000 people in March found that 59% viewed the Covid response as the most important issue in this week’s local elections, which will determine who oversees local services across 143 English councils. As the BBC notes, “the important decisions on the pandemic are made at a national level”, but the public’s focus on the issue suggests that Boris Johnson’s successful vaccination campaign could swing the vote results.
That prediction is backed up by the findings of a newly published poll of 11,506 voters by political forecasting site Electoral Calculus. The survey suggests that the Tories will take control of a further 12 councils on 6 May, including two from Labour.
What are the implications for the next parliamentary vote?
Politico’s Poll of Polls, which aggregates data from multiple sources, currently has the Conservatives in the lead to claim victory at the next general election, scheduled for 2024. As of 3 May, the Tories were on 41%, with Labour on 36% – a major turnaround from last September, when Labour pulled level with the Tories for the first time since July 2019, as the UK was engulfed by a second coronavirus wave.
The Tories are now leading again despite of weeks of sleaze allegations and the “cash for curtains” row, with pundits attributing the widening gap to the government’s vaccination rollout success and steep fall in Covid-related deaths.
Greg Cook, a former Labour head of political strategy, notes that even if the opposition party were to win every seat in London in the next general election, it would still be more than 100 short of a majority. This week’s vote will “offer one of the very few opportunities” before the next general election to determine if Labour can “claw back” vital seats in its former “Red Wall of coalfields, cotton belts and manufacturing towns”, he writes in City A.M.
Major Sleaze vs. Captain Hindsight
After being branded “Captain Hindsight” by the prime minister, Starmer has repaid the favour by coming up with a nickname for Johnson: “Major Sleaze”. But the Labour leader’s vow to “clean up” British politics hasn’t done much for his approval rating, which tails behind that of his rival.
Matthew Smith, head of data journalism at YouGov, says that Starmer’s favourability ratings during his first year in charge had been better than Johnson’s were after taking over as the Tories’ boss. But “things started to take a turn for the worse in late January”, with “Starmer’s reputation going into rapid decline”, Smith continues.
The latest survey from YouGov gave Johnson an overall favourability rating of -11, while Starmer was on -19.
Another snap election?
Even if the Tories enjoy a resounding victory this week, much could change between now and 2 May 2024, when the next general election is scheduled to be held, in line with the Fixed-term Parliaments Act.
In an article for The Conversation, Dr Janice Morphet, a visiting professor at University College London and author of Beyond Brexit, says that “a good showing at the local elections could encourage Johnson to make a run for an early general election – after a good summer, while booster jabs are being given and before any new variants require further lockdowns later in the year”.
Indeed, the government is trying “to scrap” the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act – a move that would hand back the power to set election dates to prime ministers, reports the BBC.
Starmer is also predicting that a vote “will come much sooner than expected”. In an article published in The Observer last month, he wrote: “I’ve instructed the party to be ready to fight one by 2023.”
The timing could prove key for Labour, with even Starmer admitting this week that his party still had a “mountain to climb” to win back voters.