OPINION - Keir Starmer may celebrate local election wins but he still needs a vision

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 (Anoosh Chakelian)
(Anoosh Chakelian)

Labour may justifiably congratulate itself on symbolic wins in these local elections: the true-blue London strongholds of Westminster and Wandsworth, and the home of so-called “Workington Man” (deemed the archetypal new working-class Tory voter) in Cumberland. Yet it must channel energy from these morale boosts into a pitch that will give people something positive vote for.

In the last month, weaving my way between commons and closes, to the sound of wood pigeons and slow traffic, I found myself reporting in various slices of suburbia ahead of the local elections on a tale of two Englands.

In Barnet, outer north London on the doorstep of Hertfordshire, young families on the doorsteps of handsome town houses cheerily declared their support for Labour. The council, never run by Labour before, fell from the Tories’ grasp on election night.

Over 100 miles north in Bushbury, on the northern outskirts of Wolverhampton – where two “Red Wall” constituencies fell to Conservative MPs in 2019 – voters had something very different to say. While Boris Johnson had also appalled them with revelry in Downing Street (nearly everyone I spoke to had a story of lockdown sacrifice), Labour was not their answer. Their angst, instead, had led to apathy – and a Conservative gain from Labour in the ward of Bushbury North.

Keir Starmer’s stayed under the radar hasn’t he? He’s keeping his head down,” said one unimpressed pensioner. She had voted for Johnson, but felt betrayed by partygate and the fact she couldn’t afford to heat her house. “But I don’t trust him to be much better. I don’t know what he’d be like.”

To halt the realignment of English politics that we witnessed in Boris Johnson’s victory three years ago, Labour cannot wait to win by default. Yes, some of this realignment is to its advantage. The Greens are gaining as many seats from the Tories as Labour, and the reenergised Lib Dems are appealing to liberal, Remain-leaning Tory voters in the so-called Blue Wall – they’ve won Somerset off the Conservatives, and deprived them of control in West Oxfordshire.

All this, plus inflation squeezing households, sleaze and scandal dogging the Prime Minister, and a tired and divided governing party, it’s tempting for Labour to assume this is its moment after 12 years of Tory-led rule. Yet Keir Starmer must give the many voters Labour needs to win back a flavour of what kind of leader he would be – and an alternative vision for the country.

Anoosh Chakelian is Britain Editor of the New Statesman

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