There has been much discussion of the local election results since the polls closed last Thursday, with some commentators calling it a ‘turn of the tide’ in favour of the Opposition and others believing they achieved only ‘modest gains.’ What we do know is that the Conservatives lost a substantial number of seats, whilst Labour improved on its performance in 2018, and finally took power in some of the Tories’ former flagship Councils in London.
Attention now turns to the next General Election, and with that, two issues remain at the forefront of voters’ minds. David Simmonds, a Conservative MP in northwest London, said ‘Partygate’ was the “number one issue I’ve heard about on the doorstep”, while his colleague, Royston Smith MP, blamed the cost-of-living crisis.
Recent polling shows that Partygate has hit the Tories hard, with more than three quarters of Britons believing that Boris Johnson lied in his response to the question of whether restriction-busting parties were held in Downing Street during lockdown.
But this issue is not plain sailing for the Labour Party either.
Sir Keir Starmer’s curry, following a work event in Durham, is still generating newspaper headlines, and the increased scrutiny of the event has led to the police investigating whether this, too, was a breach of Covid rules at the time. The findings of that investigation will shape the next steps for the Party.
Public discourse is already moving towards the idea that ‘they (MPs) are all the same’, and the moral high ground that Labour has staked-out on this issue has the potential to be lost if they don’t re-claim the narrative. In a bold move on Monday afternoon, Sir Keir publicly committed to offering his resignation if he receives a fine, in stark contrast to Boris Johnson, who, despite receiving a fine (and potentially future fines) has remained as Prime Minister.
With trust difficult to gain, easy to lose and tough to repair once broken, the Labour Party will be hoping that they can continue to draw a line between their actions, and those of the Government. If, however, Sir Kier is compelled to step down, Labour may find themselves in a disastrous situation, plunged into a Leadership election, which might be compounded by a Deputy Leadership election if Angela Rayner is also forced to resign for being present at the same gathering that evening.
Whilst Partygate and Beergate will likely be short-term issues that eventually fade away, the cost-of-living crisis is set to become the political battleground for the rest of the year at the very least.
According to the Food Foundation, over seven million adults were living in households forced to reduce their food purchases in April or had missed meals despite being hungry — a 57 per cent rise from January. With energy prices rising too, Chancellor Rishi Sunak is facing mounting pressure to provide additional support for struggling families, but Treasury sources say he’s keen to wait and see how wholesale prices progress between now and August.
It all adds up to months of concern for struggling families but is clearly an opportunity for Labour, who should devise and communicate a clear plan to help those affected, where the Tories are failing to do so.
So far, Labour have called for a windfall tax on energy companies, reducing energy bills by a whopping £600 – a move hugely popular amongst the general public, and one proving difficult for the Tories to bat away, particularly as BP reported its profits doubled last year.
“We’re back – and we’re on the right path to becoming the next government”, said Emily Thornberry MP, Labour’s Shadow Attorney General, as the local elections results came in. As this requires turning over an 80-seat majority in the House of Commons, it would be no mean feat.
No party has ever come close to doing it before although post-election analysis suggests that if everyone voted the same way they did last week in the next General Election, the result would be a hung Parliament, with the Conservatives just clinging on.
Not impossible, so it seems, but if Labour are to stand any chance of winning, they must do more to communicate a vision that all areas of the country can get behind – and in particular the Red Wall, where there is still love lost.
In a clouded media and political environment, domestically and overseas, where the Opposition’s announcements are secondary to the Government, Labour must work extra hard to build awareness of their plans – and they can start now with the cost-of-living crisis.