They called it ‘Super Thursday’, yet for Keir Starmer’s Labour, it was anything but. As well as losing the Hartlepool by-election—where a Labour majority of just under 3,600 was converted into a Tory one of nearly 7,000—the party shed more than 300 councillors, and lost its majorities on councils as diverse as County Durham (which it had held continuously since 1925) and Bristol, where the Greens made major inroads despite Labour hanging on to the city mayoralty and winning the wider West of England mayoralty.
Sadiq Khan retained the London mayoralty but in unconvincing style, winning 40% of the first-round vote against 35% for the hapless Shaun Bailey, whose campaign had been all but abandoned by Tory Party HQ prior to the election. In Scotland, meanwhile, despite the media hype around new Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar, it posted its worst ever Holyrood result, losing both parliamentary seats and vote share. However, that didn’t stop Starmer hailing the Scottish campaign as a success in a post-election call with party staff.
There were some bright spots for Labour, though it would be difficult for Starmer to claim any personal credit for them. In Wales, for example, where Welsh Labour under Mark Drakeford has again positioned itself somewhat to the left of the Westminster leadership, the party won 30 seats in the Senedd—just one short of an overall majority—and will lead the next Welsh government. Andy Burnham was re-elected as Greater Manchester mayor by a landslide, and is again being talked up as a potential future contender for the Labour leadership.
Labour’s left-led councils in Preston and Salford also enjoyed successes; in Preston, the party won all the seats it was defending—a clear vote of confidence in the council’s widely-praised community wealth building model—while in Salford, socialist mayor Paul Dennett won his election with 59% of first preference votes, and Labour also gained a seat in the previously rock-solid Tory ward of Worsley and Westwood Park. Keir Starmer, it should be noted, made no mention of either Preston or Salford during the local election campaign.
The Labour right, having spent the run-up to the elections getting its pre-emptive excuses in, was quick to propagate its factional lines via the media before most of the results had even come in. Frontbenchers Steve Reed and Bridget Phillipson, for instance, both insisted that the disappointing showing was evidence that the party hadn’t changed quickly enough. We know what sort of change they have in mind: ditching whatever remains of the Corbyn-era policy programme and escalating the ongoing factional war on the Labour left.
With Peter Mandelson seemingly hovering over proceedings as an éminence grise, Starmer then set about reshuffling the shadow cabinet – a move which had been trailed in the press before polling day. Unfortunately for Starmer, the reshuffle then proceeded in shambolic fashion and only served to draw attention away from the party’s more encouraging election results. Rumour had it on Sunday evening that some shadow ministers were refusing to move posts, such was the apparent collapse in Starmer’s personal authority.
Whatever the reality, the reshuffle that took place was a more limited one than that which had originally been speculated about in the media – to the chagrin of some Blairite MPs. Lisa Nandy, who had been reported to be in line for the chop, remains in post as shadow foreign secretary (having already moved Labour sharply away from Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-imperialism). Nick Thomas-Symonds, whose position appeared to be in some doubt during the weeks leading up to the election, also stays put as shadow home secretary.
Anneliese Dodds, however, makes her long-expected departure from the post of shadow chancellor. No sooner had Dodds—a senior figure on Labour’s soft left—been appointed to the job than rumours were being put about that she’d be replaced by Rachel Reeves; this has now come to pass. Dodds certainly struggled to make much of an impression in the job, but it always seemed she was being treated as a placeholder for someone else. She’ll now head the policy review originally called for by Mandelson back in March.
Starmer’s decision to promote Reeves, though long in the offing, has met with a predictably scornful response from the Labour left, still mindful of her performance during the Ed Miliband years. As Miliband’s shadow work and pensions secretary, Reeves had implied that Labour would be tougher than the Tories on benefits—at the time the Tories were laying waste to social security, devastating many working-class lives—while pointedly saying that Labour was ‘not the party of people on benefits’ but the ‘party of working people’.
In more recent years, Reeves has attempted a post-Corbyn reinvention, positioning herself as a critic of outsourcing and privatisation. But when some of the most vulnerable people in the country—the disabled and unemployed—were being viciously scapegoated and attacked by a deeply reactionary Tory-led government, Reeves couldn’t wash her hands of them quickly enough. Whatever she says for herself now, that seems like a more reliable indication of her character and fundamental lack of basic political principle.
Both Dodds and deputy leader Angela Rayner, it seems, have been chosen as fall guys for Labour’s generally poor results. Starmer sacked Rayner as party chair on Saturday while his allies briefed aggressively against her handling of the local election campaign, and accused her of briefing against them. But when the move was met with an angry backlash from Rayner’s allies, other frontbenchers were sent out into the media to claim that the plan was actually to promote her (though none of them seemed to know where).
In the end, Rayner accepted the position of shadow chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, previously occupied by Reeves. Starmer can’t remove Rayner as deputy leader—she has her own mandate—but their relationship is clearly badly frayed; hostility between the leader and deputy leader, of course, did Labour much damage under Corbyn. However, Rayner’s stock on the Labour left tumbled last year, when she backed Starmer’s decision to suspend Corbyn and, indeed, talked about suspending ‘thousands’ more members herself.
Starmer can shuffle shadow ministers all he likes, but the buck stops with him. After a year of directionless and visionless leadership, few voters have any clear idea of what Labour stands for. Worse still, he has strengthened the hand of the most vindictive people in the party – and already, they’re demanding he does more to ditch left-wing policies and curb the democratic rights of Labour members. With another crucial by-election coming up in Batley and Spen, Starmer’s leadership risks unravelling faster than anyone could have predicted.