What The 'Star Wars Day' Ballot Means For A General Election Not So Far, Far Away
Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer will face off on Star Wars Day
In the world of sci-fi geekdom, next Thursday is Star Wars Day (May the Fourth be with you).
But to Westminster watchers, it is the date when 8,000 seats and 230 councils in England and Wales are up for grabs in the local elections.
It is the first ballot box test of Star Wars uber-fan Rishi Sunak’s popularity since he became prime minister six months ago, and also a crucial barometer of what progress Keir Starmer is making in his quest for Number 10.
Will it provide Labour with A New Hope that Starmer really can become prime minister? Or will the Empire Strike Back, signalling that Sunak could yet pull off an unlikely victory in 2024?
Polling guru and Tory peer Lord Hayward told HuffPost UK that despite being in a far better place than it was under Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, the party is still on course for major losses next Thursday.
“There has definitely been a change in the mood in recent weeks,” he said. “Tory canvassers are getting positive feedback on the doorsteps, which is a big change from a few months ago.
“At the same time, there’s a growing nervousness among Labour people. Not so long ago some of them were predicting the Conservatives would lose 2,000 seats – you don’t hear that any more.”
He said the Tories are on course to lose around 1,000 of the 3,290 council seats they currently hold, but that “has largely been priced in”, meaning anything less will be considered a success.
Hayward said the Lib Dems will pick up “several hundred seats”, and that while Labour will make gains, it may not be enough to indicate that Starmer has finally sealed the deal with the electorate.
“It may well be, in the final analysis, that it’s Keir Starmer who comes out of the elections under the most pressure,” he said.
“Rishi Sunak’s position now feels more secure. It’s not so long ago that there was talk of a leadership challenge if the locals went badly, with Boris waiting in the wings. But you don’t hear anyone seriously talking about that now. The mood has definitely shifted in Rishi’s favour.”
Star Wars buff Rishi Sunak is shown a 3-D printed model of one of the movie francise's All Terrain Armoured Transport Walkers during a visit to the UK Atomic Energy Authority in Abingdon, Oxfordshire.
But a senior Labour source said it was “total nonsense” to suggest the Tories could lose 1,000 seats, given the party ended up at rock bottom when they were last contested in 2019.
“They had an absolute disaster of a night four years ago and lost 1,300 seats,” they said. “They were in complete gridlock over Brexit and it was the death knell for Theresa May.
“For the idea that Sunak is now turning it around to be sustainable, they shouldn’t be losing any councillors next Thursday. Even if they lose one seat they are instantly in a worse place than they were under Theresa May.
“To argue that would constitute a good night is laughable.”
One Starmer ally said Labour – which is defending 2,062 seats – was using the local elections as a “building block” towards next year’s general election.
Morgan McSweeney, Labour’s campaign director, has been telling colleagues that the party needs to show it is making gains in places like Plymouth in the south as well as the Red Wall seats in the north to demonstrate it is on track for power at Westminster.
“He keeps saying that if we are the biggest party in local government come the next election we’ll be in a good place,” an insider said. “That hasn’t happened since 2002, but there’s an outside chance that’s where we might be by next Friday night.”
Labour also want to paint the local elections as a referendum on Sunak himself.
After a shaky start in Number 10, the PM has undoubtedly had a good two months, which has seen Labour’s previously-colossal poll lead reduced to a still-considerable 15 points.
“The five pledges he made at the start of the year are now months old,” said a senior Labour figure. “If people believe in them I would expect to see the Tories gaining support rather than losing it.”
Polling for the More In Common group shows that the cost of living crisis and the NHS remain the issues which are most important to voters, regardless of their background or political views. This could spell trouble for a party which has been in power for 13 years.
One Conservative candidate told HuffPost UK: “People are just fed up of the government, they’re fed up of the Tory Party and they’re looking at how best they can send a message.
“Nobody cares about all of the culture war stuff the leadership are pushing – what they really want is the potholes to be fixed. If I lose, I’ll have been brought down by the national party.”
Ed Davey hopes to take another chunk out of the blue wall.
The most upbeat of the three main parties is undoubtedly the Lib Dems, who are set to significantly increase the 1,205 seats they currently hold.
“The momentum is with us,” said a source, who predicted a good night for the party in the Blue Wall of Tory-held seats in the south of England which are vulnerable to the Lib Dems.
The party is fielding its highest number of candidates since 2007, and hopes to send a message to big-name Tories that they are coming for their seats in the general election.
“More Tories are turning to us in Dominic Raab’s patch,” the source said. “We also expect to make gains in Nadhim Zahawi’s constituency. We want to put them on notice.”
As a Star Wars aficionado, Sunak knows that the original movie ends with the Rebel Alliance bringing down the ruling Empire.
He will hope that a loose coalition of Labour and the Lib Dems doesn’t leave him feeling the Force of voter anger.