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Starmer’s ‘Red Wall first’ strategy may cost Labour in the local elections

Keir Starmer outside Parliament on the historic Saturday Brexit debate, October 19 2019 | Alamy

4 min read

Recent polling suggests Keir Starmer’s strategy to win over Red Wall Conservative voters is not working, and that Labour could be heading for disappointing local election results as they lose voters on their left flank.

If Labour want to triumph at the next general election, they need to win back the Red Wall seats that switched to the Conservatives in 2019. That has been the dominant narrative since the last election and the strategy that Starmer has pursued in his first year as leader. The Hartlepool by-election and other local elections on Thursday 6 May will provide the first test of whether it is working. Polls suggest Starmer has his work cut out.

Although Starmer has raised Labour’s standing in surveys of voting intentions, he has struggled to win over Conservative voters. Instead, Labour’s biggest gains have been amongst those who voted Liberal Democrat in 2019, Remain in 2016, the middle class and people aged between 18-45. Some polls have shown there has been a reversal of the traditional class divide in British politics, with Labour leading amongst the middle class and the Conservatives favoured amongst the working class.

Therefore despite Labour’s focus on winning back older, working class Leave voters, when Labour was polling at its highest under Starmer and was neck and neck with the Conservatives in October 2020, polling indicated the party was failing to make any significant gains among these demographics. Paula Surridge, a political sociologist from the University of Bristol, noted that a significant number of Conservative voters were undecided rather than switching to Labour.

Elections expert John Curtice recently suggested that instead of prioritising those voters they lost in 2019, Labour could concentrate on maximising its vote share amongst the cohorts where the party has become increasingly popular. This argument is based on the view that the divisions caused by Brexit have fundamentally changed British politics, and with it the traditional voting coalitions of the Conservative and Labour parties.

Since the referendum the Conservatives have successfully maximised their appeal to Leave voters (with 74 per cent casting their ballots for them in 2019), while Labour has failed to emulate this as successfully with Remain voters (receiving only 49 per cent of the Remain vote in 2019). As Curtice puts it, if Labour had stopped trying to appeal to both sides and prioritised appealing to Remainers in the way the Conservatives had with Leavers, the party could have performed better in the last election.

With only weeks to go before the local elections, the polls indicate the once undecided Conservative voters have mostly returned to the fold, and it is Labour voters who are increasingly unsure about who to support. Labour have also lost some of the support of 2019 Lib Dem voters, with just 25 per cent now saying that they will vote Labour as opposed to 40 per cent a few months ago. To make matters more challenging for Starmer, Labour are now losing one in 10 of their 2019 voters to the Greens.

The Conservatives have clearly been helped by the success of the government’s vaccination rollout, but that does not explain why Labour should be losing voters to the Lib Dems and Greens. Part of the reason may be the drop in Starmer’s approval ratings this year. His decision to engage constructively with the government and avoid “scoring party political points” may have been suitable initially, but it has gradually attracted criticism from those who want him to provide stronger opposition and to set out his own position. One recent poll showed the main reason Red Wall voters would not support Starmer was that it was “unclear what he stands for”.

The polls suggest Starmer’s strategy of side-stepping issues that draw a line between his base and the voters he is hoping to win back has not paid dividends. Instead Labour faces the worst of both worlds, struggling to appeal to either side. At the last general election Labour advocated for a second Brexit referendum to appeal to Remain voters but avoided being explicit about backing Remain to appease Leave voters. Based on the result last time and with the local elections fast approaching, there is no reason to think that sitting on the fence again will be a good strategy.


Joshua Martin is Dods Monitoring Content Specialist


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