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Keir Starmer: the PM-in-waiting who no one really wants

The local elections confirmed the depth of anti-Tory feeling – and the shallow support for Labour.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume
Columnist

Topics Politics UK

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The elections in England this week confirmed what we already knew about the Tory government. Rishi Sunak is a dead prime minister walking, heading for a heavy defeat in the coming UK General Election. The anti-Tory media celebrated with gleeful headlines about the Tories being ‘crushed’ and ‘desperate’.

But look behind the other blowhard headlines about ‘Stunning Labour triumphs’, and this week’s election results also confirmed a less-discussed truth about the Labour Party that many of us have long suspected. Sir Keir Starmer may well be Britain’s prime minister-in-waiting, but few people outside the cliques of Labour apparatchiks and loyalists are waiting for him to take power with any enthusiasm or excitement. Instead, Starmer looks increasingly like the PM-in-waiting who nobody really wants.

The Labour leader who has proved that he stands for no principles beyond his own election is not the man to get voters on their feet. The technocrat who will flip-flop and say whatever he thinks will lose him the fewest votes this week, on everything from Brexit to trans ideology, is not the leader people will shout for. Britain is crying out for political change. Yet who could seriously suggest that Starmer is it?

And if you want to see what Labour’s metropolitan elites really think of the voters they are trying to win over, look at top Labour MP Wes Streeting’s declaration earlier this week that anybody who voted Tory in London was effectively a racist, white supremacist and Islamophobe.

It is hard to exaggerate the scale of the Tories’ defeat. When these local-council seats and big mayoralties were last contested, the Tory Party was in the ascendancy, riding the wave of Boris ‘Get Brexit done’ Johnson’s victory in the 2019 General Election and winning across Labour’s former ‘Red Wall’ strongholds. This time, after 14 bitterly failed years in government, Sunak’s party is in the doldrums of public support. It lost more than 450 local-council seats across England this week.

The Tories also lost an MP’s seat in Blackpool South, which Labour regained with a swing of 26 per cent – one of the biggest recorded in a parliamentary by-election. The Tories only beat Reform UK by just over 100 votes. Even a rare bright spot for Sunak, when a Conservative was re-elected as mayor of the Tees Valley region in the north, was tainted; the high-profile Ben Houchen effectively ran as an independent, distancing himself from the national party.

Based on this week’s results, top pollster Sir John Curtice estimated that the Conservatives would have won just 25 per cent of the votes in a national election. One former government minister confessed that there is ‘no such thing really as a safe Tory seat anymore’. Many Tory MPs agree, and are standing down to avoid the inevitable at the next General Election. One of them even defected to Starmer’s Labour last month – a more natural home for many of the centrist liberals posing as Conservatives in parliament these days.

Things now look so hopeless for Sunak that rebel right-wing Tory MPs even shelved plans for a leadership challenge after this week’s defeats, seemingly concluding that all was already lost and they should just let the prime minister carry the can at the General Election. There seems no positive reason now for anybody to vote for a Tory Party that has abandoned any last vestiges of conservative principle on everything from immigration to education or taxation.

So far so good for Labour, apparently heading for government for the first time since 2010. Yet this week’s results also showed a distinct lack of public enthusiasm for Starmer’s party. There is a deep anti-Tory sentiment in the country, but support for Labour is decidedly shallow.

Despite Labour’s immediate triumphalist response to this week’s elections, pollster Curtice estimated that overall the local results would translate into a national vote share of just 34 per cent. True, that forecast would put Labour nine points ahead of the flailing Tories in a General Election. But winning slightly more than one-in-three of the votes cast, against the most unpopular Tory government this century, hardly looks like a ringing endorsement. Despite overall success, Labour failed to win some of its target ‘bellwether’ councils, such as Harlow in Essex.

Labour’s support looks even less impressive when you consider the high numbers of people who did not feel it worth voting at all. Turnout in the Blackpool South by-election, for example, was just 32.5 per cent. Labour easily won the seat, but with fewer actual votes than it gained when heavily defeated there in 2019. Even in Starmer’s London heartland, despite Labour’s desperate attempts to get the vote out for Sadiq Khan by talking up the threat of a shambolic Tory campaign, turnout in the mayoral election fell to 40.5 per cent from 42 per cent in 2021.

The prospect of Starmer achieving a landslide victory in a General Election later this year is often compared with Tony Blair’s historic triumph in 1997, when New Labour won 418 seats and a 179-seat majority with 43 per cent of the vote. Yet what is striking is the contrast in the public mood at this stage of the electoral cycle.

A few months before the 1997 election, there was a widespread positive feeling about the prospect of Blair replacing the exhausted John Major government after 18 years of Tory rule. New Labour’s adopted anthem, ‘Things Can Only Get Better’, captured that (misplaced) mood. Where is the sign of any such enthusiasm for a coming Starmer government? At best, people are shrugging and conceding (almost certainly wrongly) that they don’t see how things could get much worse under Labour.

Commentators have focussed on how Starmer’s supposed support for Israel cost Labour votes and some council seats in areas with relatively large Muslim populations. No doubt this will lead Labour to make more concessions to the Islamists and move further towards abandoning the Israelis in their hour of need.

There has been less attention paid, however, to the fact that Brexit remains the bigger issue in the changing face of British politics. And a potential political landmine waiting for PM Starmer.

In 2019, it was the Tories’ promise to get Brexit done and take back control that won over millions of former Labour voters in areas that had voted Leave in the 2016 EU referendum. It is the execrable failure of successive Tory governments to come anywhere near fulfilling those Brexit pledges that has seen their support collapse in those parts of the country.

Starmer’s claim to have now accepted Brexit as a done deal has doubtless helped Labour regain support in Leave-voting areas. Yet how many leave voters are likely honestly to trust the politician who we remember as the anti-Brexit spokesman and champion of a second referendum in Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party? And Labour’s plans to deal with illegal immigration by effectively making much of it legal hardly squares with the popular desire for a government to take back control of Britain’s borders.

Little wonder, then, that some Tory deserters are instead giving their support to Reform UK, successor to Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party. Reform won 17 per cent of the vote in Blackpool South, and came within an ace of beating the Tories into third place. That is Reform’s best-ever result in a parliamentary by-election, though still some way short of the Brexit Party’s 28.9 per cent in Peterborough in 2019. Farage’s previous party, UKIP, hit the mid-20s in several by-elections before the EU referendum, even winning one with 59.7 per cent of the vote in 2014. At present, with Farage playing only a background role, Reform looks well capable of helping the Tories to lose MPs, but winning any remains a big challenge.

Overall, British politics seems in a strange state. It is a time of flux, with an imminent change of government. Yet there is also an underlying sense of stasis, of nothing much changing beyond the names of the MPs. Many people are deeply disenchanted with the old parties, but still waiting for something new to happen. Britain’s stale political scene appears ripe for the sort of Brexit-style populist revolt that we have witnessed across Europe, but where might it come from, and when?

In any case, as Starmer advances with apparent serenity towards No10 Downing Street, the prime minister-in-waiting who nobody really wants would be well-advised not to plan for any extended honeymoon period in government.

Mick Hume is a spiked columnist. The concise and abridged edition of his book, Trigger Warning: Is the Fear of Being Offensive Killing Free Speech?, is published by William Collins.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Politics UK

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