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Tories Claim Keir Starmer Should Be "Bullish" About Making Labour Gains Ahead Of Local Elections

4 min read

The Tories are claiming Keir Starmer should be far more “bullish” about Labour winning seats in next week’s local elections, as both sides continue to spectacularly play down their chances of gaining anything on May 6.

The taunt from party co-chair Amanda Milling ahead of polling on Thursday comes as politicians head out for a final weekend of campaigning in 5,000 English council seats, thirteen directly elected mayoral races as well as the Mayor of London, the Scottish and Welsh parliaments, and the Hartlepool by-election.

Labour's leadership has sought to play down expectations of a significant bounce-back this Thursday, insisting that turning the tables on 2019's catastrophic General Election defeat could take years. 

"Based on the 2019 General Election results we would lose 300 seats so there is no doubt these will be a tough set of elections for us," deputy leader Angela Rayner told PoliticsHome. 

"Both Keir and myself have been clear that we face an uphill task between now and the General Election, and turning round our fortunes is a five year project, not something that will be achieved in a year or so."

But Milling believed that in the mayoral contests at least, Starmer should be have high hopes.

“Labour is starting from such a low base. Jeremy Corbyn was the worst leader of the opposition in terms of local elections since Michael Foot. They should be expecting to make gains," she told PoliticsHome.

“In fact they should be much more bullish in terms of their expectations in what they can achieve across these mayoralties.”

“They have got a new leader. And so, he should be expecting to make significant gains.”

Labour is polling consistently behind the Conservatives and Starmer has tried to manage expectations so far, with Starmer saying at the party's local election launch there is a "long way to go" to rebuild the party after losing the 2019 general election. Labour also acknowledges the Tories have had a "vaccine bounce" from the rollout of the scheme.

Likewise the Tories are also trying to lower hopes, and Milling said it was a “tough challenge” to hold onto seats and make gains as the governing party do not historically tend to do well at local elections.

When they took Teesside and the West Midlands mayoralties in 2017, and gained 550 council seats in England and Wales, it came at a point where they were nationally 18 points ahead in the polls and unusually bucked the trend.

She said the Tories will also find it tough at the elections as it's hard to judge turnout and there is a huge range of independent parties.

“Given what we’re defending it’s challenging. If I take Nottinghamshire for example you have a number of independent groups who hold the balance of power in that county council," Milling continued.

"Then you have the greens, the Lib Dems, who tend to target ward by ward. They would be expected to do well.

“It’s not just about the number of seats we gained in 2017 but it’s what that looked like in terms of the power balance of some of these councils,” she said.

Some Conservative majorities are fragile – in Lancashire they have a majority of two, and in Derbyshire it’s five.

The final days of campaigning for the Tories will include an enhanced presence in south Wales, and then onto Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire, where the battle is with the Lib Dems.

On the Hartlepool by-election, where they came second in 2019, Milling claimed it would be hard to win, despite other "red-wall" seats going to the Tories in 2019. To even be on the pitch is “extraordinary”, she said.

Milling criticised Labour's candidate Dr Paul Williams for his pro-Remain views, which Milling did not believe would land well in a Brexit-backing town. 

But Rayner said the people of Hartlepool have a choice between electing a local doctor who has been on the frontline throughout the Covid crisis, or a Tory candidate "parachuted in" and "who has more connection with a tax haven than she does with Hartlepool.”

The Conservative candidate Jill Mortimer, a district councillor and farmer in Hambleton, North Yorkshire, has been challenged by Labour this week over the year she spent living in the Cayman Islands, where her former husband worked as a financial regulator.

Labour say there are questions to answer over whether she paid national insurance and tax to the UK while she lived on the island, which is a notorious tax-haven. 

Rayner said: “If the Tory candidate in Hartlepool has nothing to hide about her connections with a tax haven then she should just set the record straight and publish her tax returns.
“With the Electoral Commission investigating Tory HQ for potentially breaking the law over their dodgy donors, you would assume they would prefer transparency over more cover-ups.”

The Conservative Party has said Mortimer has has no financial connection to the Cayman Islands. A statement said she has no financial interests such as bank accounts or any other assets and neither does her ex-husband.

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