Labour Insist Claims They Have Failed To Grip The Whole Country Don't Stand Up, But Admit There's Work To Do
Labour MPs and officials have dismissed suggestions that the party has failed to get a grip on support across the country, but privately admit there is still a way to go if they want to make serious gains at the next general election.
Across the UK, overall local election results so far have seen the Conservatives lose 401 council seats, Labour pick up 261, and the Liberal Democrats make an impressive 189 gains.
Labour figures PoliticsHome spoke to this weekend were pleased that party had made major gains across the UK, most notably taking three previously Conservative-held London councils in Westminster, Barnet and Wandsworth, and winning Cumberland Council, a new local authority in Cumbria which incorporates the seats of three Conservative MPs.
While Downing Street has deflected significant Tory losses by insisting that Labour's results do not pose a threat to their party, a Labour insider said that Starmer is ready to “get people excited about the change a Labour government will bring”.
There was a sense of optimism that despite Labour being eclipsed by the Lib Dems in southern seats where the Tories saw defeats, they had a strong showing in some Brexit-voting areas such as Hartlepool in the northeast, Leigh in the northwest, and several Midlands seats. In Scotland, Labour overtook the Scottish Conservatives to become the second largest party north of the border after the SNP.
“The results overall mean we’d have won dozens of seats from North to South at a general election, important marginals that we’d need to form the next government," a senior party source said.
"The idea that Labour isn’t making progress all over the country just doesn’t stand up. There’s this idea in some quarters that we haven’t made progress in the red wall, but the facts just don’t say that."
Starmer has described his team's performance as a “turning point for the Labour Party”.
But in many traditional 'red wall' seats in the North of England, Labour did struggle to make significant breakthroughs, and privately MPs and officials say that a large amount of work remains ahead of the next general election.
"Labour gained councils in every part of the country,” a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee told PoliticsHome.
“This exceeded what we thought was possible given that the seats in England were last fought in 2018, and were mainly Labour held anyway, so the scope for gains was limited.
“There are, however, still areas of the country where the organisational, reputational and political damage of the Corbyn years has not been fully repaired yet.
“We are acutely aware of how much still needs to be done to get Labour ready to win everywhere but pleased with the obvious progress that has been made."
In an op-ed for The Times, polling expert Sir John Curtice described Labour’s performance as lacking “significant progress”, with the party still having “a lot more ground to make up”.
“This is not a performance that suggested Labour is making significant progress in wooing back the red wall constituencies the Conservatives wrestled from Labour’s grasp in 2019,” the pollster said.
“Labour claimed the results showed it was making 'progress', but it evidently still has a lot more ground to make up.”
Curtice’s critique of Labour’s performance in the north of England was echoed by a party source based in the area, who told PoliticsHome that it was important not to over-focus on its London gains.
“While the political significance of winning Barnet is huge and shouldn’t be understated, the leader of the opposition’s office won’t win any votes up North by going on about dominating in Wandsworth,” they said.
“While we can’t win convincingly in Scotland or the north of England, we won’t win a general election,” they added. “It’s as simple as that.”
There was, however, some reason for optimism in the North. In Wakefield, where a key by-election is due to take place, Labour held on to the council and managed to gain an additional two seats.
One shadow minister described the results to PoliticsHome as “incredible”, making note in particular of the party's performance in Wales, where Labour won 316 seats compared to the Conservatives' 111.
“Labour have made gains in every part of Wales with the Tories losing control of their only council and suffering significant losses across the country,” they said.
“This is a massive turning point for Labour and we’ve made great progress on the 2019 general election and last year’s local elections,” the MP added.
“It’s clear that the country needs real leadership and a government who are going to act to help on the cost-of-living crisis.”
On Friday Conservatives insisted that Labour was only making scant progress in the local elections.
“The red wall still aren’t buying Starmer," a government source told PoliticsHome.
They added that the Labour leader had “absolutely not” done enough to indicate he is “a Prime Minister in waiting”.
But a senior Labour official seemed relaxed about the line of attack, describing it as “almost as bad as when the Tories tried to spin the London results as bad news for Labour”.
“We won the local elections and the results show that if it had been a general election, we would be the largest party,” they added.
According to calculations by Sir John Curtice for the BBC, local election results suggested that if the whole country had been voting, Labour would have taken a 35% vote share compared to 30% for the Conservatives and 19% for the Lib Dems.
“Keir has done an incredible job in removing the hostility to Labour in the red wall, the south, in Jewish communities, and, along with Anas, in Scotland, making us a credible alternative government," the senior Labour official continued.
“In two years, he’s done what Kinnock and Smith did in 11. Now we need to get people excited about the change a Labour government will bring.”
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