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UK local elections: Time to take Starmerism seriously

Being a British politics geek used to be a lot easier. On a local election day, it was just a matter of staying up a few extra hours and seeing the results come in on TV. Last week, the myriad elections taking place had their results declared from late on Thursday in a slow and steady trickle, culminating with the last result being announced on Sunday afternoon. I did well to last until 5am on Friday morning for my first session. I was determined to see the result of the Blackpool South by-election, the only Westminster seat being contested, and it turned up at about 4:50.

We experience election outcomes as a narrative, as each result is declared, and this affects what we believe and how we interpret the results as a whole. The presentation of the results by mainstream outlets conveys all the biases, fears and hopes of the people involved in those broadcasts, at least until the obvious can no longer be denied. Throughout Thursday night and long into Friday, the mainstream media tried desperately to present a narrative showing the Tories doing badly, but not too badly, and Labour doing well, but not well enough. It’s a tedious pattern they have got into regarding midterm elections (although ‘midterm’ is stretching things, considering a general election is mere months away).

In the case of Blackpool South, the BBC were billing it through the night as a possible area where Reform could come in second, beating the Tories down to third. When they narrowly failed to do so, the result was presented as much better for the Conservatives than expected. For context, Labour won with nearly 59% of the vote and had a swing in their favour from the Tories of 26.3%, one of their largest by-election swings ever. This seat was one of the famous Red Wall constituencies won by the Tories under disgraced former prime minister, Boris Johnson.

It really shouldn’t have been interpreted as anything other than terrible for the Tories. Nearly tying with Reform is not any kind of solace for the Conservatives. Reform morphed from the Brexit Party and is getting most of its support from disgruntled Tory voters. Comparing the result with other recent by-elections, we see a Labour Party that is winning its heartlands back but also showing that it is able to win parliamentary seats in different areas of the country. The obvious conclusion is that we are likely heading towards a Labour government.

As of Sunday morning (with just one council left to declare), council results in England showed Labour with 1,158 seats, up by 186 councillors. The Liberal Democrats had 522 councillors, up 104, and the Greens had 181, up by 74. The Tories lost 474 councillors, dropping to 515. In terms of control of councils Labour were up eight, the Tories down 10. Reform had only managed to get two councillors elected and did not stand in every ward. Where they did stand, the Conservative vote suffered. What Nigel Farage (their founder) and Richard Tice (their leader) decide to do in the general election really has a huge bearing on the fortunes of the Tories. They say they do not intend to do a deal with the Tories like they did in 2019.

People may have seen the national vote projections put out by the broadcasters on Friday afternoon, invariably giving Labour just a 9 or 10 point lead over the Tories, and therefore wildly different from the recent opinion polls showing Labour with around a 20 point lead. These should have carried a health warning. They failed to take account of Scotland as there were no elections taking place there, so they used the figures from the 2019 election. They therefore failed to take into account the imploding SNP and the likelihood of Labour making significant gains there. They also failed to take account of the patchy nature of Reform. The BBC were still using the modelling on Sunday to suggest Labour might not get an overall majority when the general election finally comes. I can’t recall a local election projection being taken so seriously days after the results.

The mood will shift further

The mayoral contest showed Labour were doing well in the larger complexes which comprise multiple parliamentary constituencies. In the East Midlands, for example, where cities Derby and Nottingham are combined with the rural areas around them, Labour won a decisive victory. The Tories hung on to Tees Valley, but a swing of 17% to Labour tells a different story. The prime minister, Rishi Sunak, saw it as his one opportunity to smile and he shot up there for a quick media appearance, as rumours flew around (again) that his party might yet ditch him.

So, the media will say (perhaps out of a duty for balance) that Labour didn’t do well everywhere. That’s fairly normal for local elections. You get a lot of protest voting, regional and local issues come to the fore, and you get other voters deciding on the national picture. In predominantly Muslim communities, Labour certainly lost a lot of voters due to its stance on Gaza. You also get low turnouts. There’s nothing in these results, however, that doesn’t point towards a massive Labour victory.

But let’s be cautious and accept the projection as one possibility. That provides us with a range of possible outcomes where Labour is either the largest party in a hung parliament or they gain a landslide and the Tories may be reduced to fewer than 100 seats. Either way, the current likelihood is that we will see Keir Starmer in Downing Street. On Saturday afternoon the news from the West Midlands mayoral race was that Andy Street, the Tory mayor, might be narrowly beaten by Richard Parker. The confirmation came in the evening, and with it, a shift in the coverage. The media turned and it was now an undoubtedly brilliant set of results for Labour.

Over the next few weeks, the mood is going to shift further. Starmer is going to face a great deal more scrutiny as the establishment gets used to the idea that he’s likely the next prime minister. In part, this shift has already begun. In the latest New Statesman, their lead article assesses what ‘Starmerism’ might mean. I recall similar such articles, in the run up to the 1997 election, on what ‘Blairism’ might be. One of the problems for us all with Starmer is that it has been difficult to know exactly what he stands for. He had a reputation for Trotskyism as a student (some of the articles he wrote as an editor of Socialist Alternative can be found online: see page 25 here for a young Starmer’s view on how to reinvigorate the British trade union movement), he served in Jeremy Corbyn’s supposedly far left shadow cabinet, and then he distanced himself from both his former leader and some of those former policies.

To say, though, that Starmer has shifted to a Blairite position is too simplistic. He backs railway re-nationalisation and the creation of a brand new nationalised green energy company. He has instigated what he calls ‘mission led government’, with five missions that each future Labour policy must contribute to in order to be included in the manifesto. There is something managerial and pragmatic about the approach. He is setting up a group of people ready to take over, with the simple promise that they can manage things better than the Tories. There is also a vision of community at the heart of his missions, coupled with a belief in the state as an agent of positive and progressive change.

For anarchists, there will be much to disagree with and we should relish the opportunity to highlight the injustices of the state, no matter which party is in power. Just because they oppose the Tory Rwanda plan on immigration, doesn’t mean they will be remotely positive towards refugees. They will be strong on law and order, with Starmer already sounding Blair-like on anti-social behaviour. They want more cops. They probably won’t repeal anti-protest laws. They’ve already rowed back on their green aspirations. They might yet dilute their stance on workers’ rights.

Meanwhile, waiting in the wings are the Labour think tanks. Under the Tories we have seen New Right thinktanks heavily influence government policy, and indeed some of their key people have even been brought into Downing Street by various prime ministers over the last 14 years. It is therefore worth looking into two organisations. The first is Labour Together, a group set up in 2017 by a number of MPs, some of whom are now in the shadow cabinet. This think tank is a big influence on Starmer and was central to getting him elected as leader. The second is the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. When the general election comes, and assuming Labour win, it’s not hard to imagine un-elected senior members of these two groups working directly with Starmer in Downing Street. Ironically, we’re on the cusp of major political change in this country and yet we’re really not; we’re in the run up to the Labour Party benefiting from the periodical moment where the public give up on one party and choose the other for a bit of a change.

~ Jon Bigger

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