Keir Starmer shakes hands with Abdul Harid as he congratulates winning Labour candidates on the newly formed Cumberland council. Photograph: Anthony
Labour activists still shudder at the thought of recent campaigns in many “red wall” areas. In Hartlepool, one recalled seeing canvassers shaking with fear before going out to knock doors. This year, several party figures said, Labour got a hearing again.
It may not be the “massive turning point” hailed by Keir Starmer, but there was a feeling after votes had been counted that Labour had made steps towards arresting the decline that helped Boris Johnson to a landslide victory in 2019 – although the road back to power remains long.
“It’s not an electoral performance that would get me rushing to the bookmakers to back Keir Starmer as the next prime minister,” said Prof Jonathan Tonge of Liverpool university. “But the Conservatives have got a lot to do to preserve an overall majority – and if they don’t get an overall majority, they’re in deep trouble.”
With about a third of councils still to declare on Friday, the Conservative share of the vote had fallen around 3% in the leave-voting areas that formed the foundation of its 2019 victory.
Labour’s share had nudged up only 1%, said Tonge, showing a party that was “treading water” rather than making the gains that might be expected at this point in the electoral cycle and against a backdrop of Partygate and the cost-of-living crisis.
There was cause for celebration in Cumbria, where Labour won two-thirds of seats in the newly formed Cumberland council where the Tories have three MPs. Further south in Lancashire, Labour regained Rossendale council – home of the former northern powerhouse minister Jake Berry – which it had lost to the Conservatives a year ago.
But a failure to capitalise on councils in no overall control, such as Bolton, Derby and the Wirral, was a sign that voters are not rushing back to Labour in areas it previously held for decades. The loss of Labour councillors in coal country – seven in Derbyshire’s Amber Valley and three in Barnsley – was a warning that the party could yet slip further backwards.
One former shadow minister representing a northern constituency said Labour had not yet broken the “barrier” for voters who leaned towards Johnson in 2019. “They’ve certainly fallen out with Johnson, but they’re not ready to take the leap with us yet. It’s not just Corbyn; the view is quite entrenched and will take a long time and a concerted effort and persistence to recover from.”
The last time these council seats were fought, Labour’s red wall was largely still intact, so the room for big advances was limited. In the heavily leave-voting north-east of England, Labour lost seven seats across the six councils that had declared by mid-afternoon on Friday. The Liberal Democrats claimed the most new seats in these areas, where a strong ground campaign and hard work on local issues has given voters another outlet post-Brexit.
In Sunderland’s Pallion ward, June Simm said she was a dyed-in-the-wool Labour voter before switching to the Tories because of Corbyn. Disillusioned, on Thursday she voted Lib Dem. “They’re great and they’re very nice when they come round. They always send a Christmas card and let you know what they’re up to.”
Edward Hutchinson, an 84-year-old retired builder from Sunderland, is typical of the working-class voter who supported Labour all his life until Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. He voted Conservative on Thursday and probably would do so again at the general election. “Look round at this town – it is rubbish at the minute,” he said. “We’ve had a Labour council that many years and I can’t understand why people are keeping them in.”
Shabana Mahmood, Labour’s national campaign coordinator, said the party has “much more work to do” to be back on track for a win at the next general election, but there were signs of progress.
Labour number-crunchers said the aggregate vote share showed that it would win red wall seats such as Workington, Grimsby and West Bromwich if Thursday’s votes were translated to a general election. Mahmood said it gave Labour a “solid foundation to build on” before the next national poll, expected to be in May 2024, if not earlier.
The assessment was more downbeat among those who spent weeks knocking on voters’ doors. One Labour organiser said the party had done “OK by default” because Tory voters had stayed at home and that Starmer must channel the aspirational spirit of Tony Blair if the party was to recover in satellite towns. “It’s all well and good saying we will give people £600 to help, but it’s not a plan to solve the problem,” he said.
“We need better answers to the issues facing the country, and we need to be much more aspirational about the impact and difference a Labour government will have on people’s lives.”
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