Labour talks down election hopes but Starmer could face heat

<span>Photograph: Ian Forsyth/PA</span>
Photograph: Ian Forsyth/PA

Labour strategists say their electoral chances this week have been hampered by two welcome, and successful, government policies: the furlough scheme, under which the state has paid millions of people’s wages, and the successful delivery of the Covid vaccine.

Keir Starmer’s team point out that the feelgood factor from the vaccine rollout, and the relaxing of restrictions on voters’ everyday lives, would be a challenging backdrop for any opposition party. And they insist his is a long-term project of restoring Labour to winning form by the time of the next general election.

Starmer himself has repeatedly said he and his colleagues have “a mountain to climb”, and his allies are pinning their hopes for Thursday’s elections on modest gains far away from the “red wall”, in Scotland and the south of England.

But if the party fares as badly this week as some polls have suggested – losing Hartlepool’s seat at Westminster to the Conservatives and going backwards in areas Labour hopes to win in 2024 – Starmer could come under intense pressure from colleagues to change tack.

In particular, while his allies are now highlighting potential gains for Labour in south and south-west England, Starmer’s strategy in the 12 months since he took over has been aimed squarely at recapturing seats such as Darlington, which his chief of staff, Jenny Chapman, lost to the Conservatives in 2019.

A poor performance in areas such as Doncaster, which may hint at further potential red wall gains for the Tories, and any signs that Labour continues to go backwards in areas such as the West Midlands where it lost nine Westminster seats in 2019, would spark alarm within the parliamentary party.

That is highly unlikely to mean a leadership challenge, however. Disgruntled Corbynite MPs almost certainly couldn’t muster the 40 MPs necessary to kick off a race (the leftwing Socialist Campaign Group has 34 members), while Labour’s centrists have the humiliating memory of Owen Smith’s vainglorious 2016 candidacy seared on their memories.

But Starmer’s critics on both wings of the party may well feel emboldened to push for a shadow cabinet shakeup – and perhaps a rejig of the leader’s office, too.

Some frontbenchers complain that Starmer’s close-knit team are cautious and controlling, keeping the shadow cabinet on a short leash – perhaps partly as a reaction to the leaks and hostile briefing of the Jeremy Corbyn years.

Starmer’s team have repeatedly insisted there are “no plans” for a reshuffle, but they could decide to seize the moment for a fresh start.

The Labour leader had already been planning to make more speeches and policy announcements in the coming months as the acute phase of the pandemic recedes. But he will face far more intense pressure to do so if Thursday’s results are disappointing, and as Boris Johnson prepares to use the Queen’s speech next week to ramp up his plans to “build back better”.

One seasoned Labour adviser suggested Starmer would be wise to ignore the knee-jerk reactions of colleagues from all sides of the party, and wait for the dust to settle, however. “On Friday, you’ll have people on the right saying: ‘You haven’t done enough to purge the Trots’ and people on the left saying: ‘Bring back Jeremy’ – but we’ll still be counting votes on Monday,” they said.