Downing Street Claims Voters Aren't 'Buying' Starmer's Labour Despite Major Tory Losses At Locals
A briefing war is underway over the local election results with Labour insisting that it is rebuilding its support in 'red wall' parts of the country that will be key to determining the next general election.
The results announced as of Friday lunchtime are mixed, with Labour picking up some council seats in the North and the Midlands but failing to make major inroads up to now. The Conservatives have suffered their biggest losses in the South, but not at Labour's gain, with the Liberal Democrats continuing to grow its support in traditionally Tory areas.
Downing Street this morning was keen to focus on red wall parts of the country where Labour leader Keir Starmer has prioritised ahead of the next general election. Labour haemorrhaged votes in these at the 2019 general election, paving the way to Boris Johnson's 80-seat parliamentary majority.
A senior government source claimed Starmer was making scant progress in these areas, based on the results announced so far.
“The red wall still aren’t buying Starmer," they told PoliticsHome.
"Outside of London the Labour vote is actually lower than it was under Corbyn in 2018 — has he done enough to indicate he is a PM in waiting? — absolutely not.”
Labour has made some significant gains, including three major long-held Conservative councils in London, and Cumberland Council, a new local authority in Cumbria which incorporates the seats of three Conservative MPs, where Labour won a large majority of seats.
A Labour source said "the feeling internally is really positive" and that the results announced up to now showed that the next general election, which must take place by 2024, was "winnable".
"If the whole party gets as serious about it as those that ran the campaign, we will be the next government," they told PoliticsHome.
Labour sources insisted the party had picked up key victories in its former heartlands. They argued that the results showed the party regaining sixteen Brexit-voting constituencies at the next general election including Hartlepool in the northeast, Leigh in the northwest, and several Midlands seats.
Speaking this morning, however, polling expert Sir John Curtice said that so far Labour hadn't made the level of progress in the North and Midlands that it would have hoped for.
"The Labour party has been wanting to argue throughout the night that these local election results clearly demonstrate evidence of progress," Curtice told BBC Radio 4.
"In London, that's true. It looks like Labour's vote is up by about a point as compared with 2018 and they did pretty well in London in 2018. London now will very clearly be more of a one-party Labour fiefdom.
"But outside of London, as compared with 2018 when the seats were last contested, it looks as if Labour's vote is actually down slightly," Curtice said.
"For a party that's trying to make progress, and has on its agenda not to win yet more in London but trying to regain ground in the so-called red wall seats in the Midlands and the North, this wasn't quite the degree of progress that might have hoped and anticipated."
Others within Labour appeared sceptical that results so far indicated they were "a party on the verge of winning power".
"[Labour] is not doing well on the ground and in digital spaces, and is increasingly outpaced by the Liberal Democrats, who have always done well on local campaigning and The Green Party," a Labour campaign source told PoliticsHome.
"No amount of spin or expectations management can disguise this reality. This was hidden in the Corbyn era by the sheer enthusiasm of the then-large membership and the efforts of outrider campaign groups like Momentum.
"Now left without these resources, we see the true state of the party’s machine: clapped out.”
James Johnson, who ran polling in Downing Street during Theresa May's time in Downing Street, offered a more positive assessment of the results for Labour. He argued that even if Starmer's party only managed to replicate its performance in red wall areas at the 2018 local elections, that would be enough to win back a number of those seats from the Conservatives at the next general election.
Where Labour has undoubtedly enjoyed success is in London, where it has taken the boroughs of Barnet, Wandsworth and Westminster from the Conservatives.
Wandsworth in south London represents a symbolic victory for Labour, as it was famously the favourite borough of the former Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher.
A Labour source said even on polling day the party didn't expect to win in Westminster.
Shabana Mahmood MP, Labour’s National Campaign Coordinator, said the results represented a "turning point" for the party after the "disastrous" result of the 2019 general election.
"Labour is making headway in England, Scotland and Wales, taking over key Conservative councils and winning in vital Parliamentary battlegrounds across the country," she said.
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