This article is part of a series exploring the local and mayoral elections. Articles from the editors, as ever, reflect the editors’ personal views and not necessarily those of Backbench. Readers are invited to share their thoughts on the elections and local democracy more generally. Get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org with any submissions and/or pitches.
Many of us have grown used to Keir Starmer’s meticulous pulling apart of the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, during PMQ’s. So much so that it seems absurd this government continually gets away with everything from potential refurbishment scandals to bullying in the workplace and lobbyists who have donated hundreds of thousands of pounds to the Conservative Party. Despite this stinking of corruption and being a clear abuse of power, not everybody thinks this way or is aware of these scandals.
As fabulous as he is when putting the PM on a pedestal, Keir Starmer needs to ensure that his message gets across to vast swathes of voters throughout the country. May’s elections will be a significant test for how well his PMQ’s strategy has infiltrated most of the population, which came out to vote for Boris Johnson in masses during the last 2019 General Election. Having solid messaging is all well and good, but making sure that it is spread through all different types of voters and constituencies is another issue altogether.
Aside from messaging, these elections will also reveal a certain extent of public confidence in the leader of the opposition. Granted, local elections tend to have a lower turnout, usually averaging between 30-40%. However, it offers a significant snapshot in the lead up to 2024 – which Labour has not lost sight of since Starmer took over from his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn.
Starmer’s leadership campaign, back in 2020, was stood on the idea that he was making a sharp break from the past and abandoning the Corbyn era. We saw this with his quick sacking of Rebecca Long Bailey last summer when she approved a “tweet about an interview in which the actor Maxine Peake said the US police tactic of kneeling on someone’s neck was taught by the Israeli secret service.” Not only this, Starmer took quick action to take the former leader himself, Corbyn, out of the Labour Party over the anti-Semitism report.
So then, in breaking from Labour’s recent past so swiftly, will Starmer prove to be more electable as a leader? In due course, May’s elections will reveal a slither of the public favourability towards him as one of the main arguments for Corbyn’s failures to cease power was always because the public deemed him as not fit to be PM.
Despite this, many members and Labour voters still stand by Corbyn’s politics and are disappointed in Starmer’s leadership. Not only this, the last 2019 election results demonstrated that traditional Labour voters in areas of the North East were voting for the Conservatives for the first time, which resulted in a dramatic loss of seats and a huge victory for the PM. Another of Starmer’s battles is uniting generations of Labour voters across the board to win enough support to gain power in 2024.
The Hartlepool by-election is dobbed as a critical indicator for how well Starmer has so far achieved this. It’s a seat that has been held by Labour for 60 years, back when Harold Wilson was in power. In the last general election, Labour took just 37.7% of the vote, its second-lowest share in 60 years. Starmer’s Labour party goes into May’s elections to increase just a 3,595 majority hold over Hartlepool. A small port town nestled in the North East acts as a microcosm for Starmer’s momentous task of winning back traditional Labour voters, all the while keeping the Corbynites happy.
His Red Wall strategy for these local elections aims at winning back traditional, working-class Labour voters who abandoned the party in 2019 – but will it further alienate the more left-wing Corbyn supporters who are disappointed with this leadership?
Messaging plays a considerable role in this. It shapes the public consciousness and understanding of the political sphere. During this pandemic, the way politics has controlled our lives has had a significant impact on the public consciousness and interpretation of the systems of power that govern us.
Additionally, many of us have been consuming more media than we usually would to keep up to date with Coronavirus. But what about when the media doesn’t report on specific issues, and these escape the public consciousness? That’s when it becomes dangerous for Starmer, who has been recently pursuing an anti-Cronyism and corruption message as his main line of defence.
Outing this is important, but it would be more efficient for Starmer to focus on issues that most of the public will resonate with. The pandemic has exposed our underfunded NHS, lack of social and economic support for the poorest in society, and the degenerate nature of the public services where we live. This is precisely why Starmer should be honing in on the anti-austerity agenda and highlighting the Conservative Party’s persistent decade long failures. The pandemic has impacted everyone somehow, and with a focus on improving public services, strengthening the NHS and tackling inequality, Starmer could get the public consciousness on his side.
All in all, Starmer has a marathon on his hands if his party are ever going to take the keys to Number 10 by 2024. During these local elections, his Red Wall strategy may indeed win back some traditional Labour voters, but in the process, may alienate others if he’s not careful. His first election as leader of the party will provide a small snapshot for if the general public feels warmer to him being the next Prime Minister than his much-outed predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn.
Local elections do matter, and this one will be a key test to see how Keir Starmer’s approach and messaging manages to make its way through to the public consensus during a year of the utmost uncertainty, exposure of endemic inequality and lingering impact from a decade’s long policy of austerity.
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