Seven months from now Britons across the country will go to the polls. This will be their first chance to pass judgement on the Tory mishandling of the pandemic and vent their anger over the coming recession. It will be their first opportunity to vote for the Labour Party of Keir Starmer, Anneliese Dodds and Nick Thomas-Symonds. They will judge the records of Mark Drakeford in Wales, Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland, metro mayors in England and countless councils across the country.
To say that these elections matter for Labour is an understatement. They are as important as any election because we know that Labour in government at all levels leads to the best outcomes for lives and communities, for business, workers and the economically inactive. In May 2021, this will be more true than ever as recession bites and the pandemic continues to harm health and livelihoods.
These elections matter, too, for the trajectory of Labour over the next four years. If Labour were to do badly, it would be far harder to stage a Westminster recovery in 2024. Narratives matter. Labour’s story needs to be that, a year into our new leadership, we are winning votes and seats in areas in which we need to do well in 2024. This means winning in the ‘Red Wall’, Wales and Scotland. Post-election headlines need to celebrate Labour’s success and the consequent failure of the Tories and SNP. The counter-narrative would be a huge blow. If Starmer appears personally popular but hampered by a still unpopular party, it will be far harder to win power in 2024.
We should not underestimate the scale of our challenge next May. Nor should we rely on Tory unpopularity or repeated Starmer wins at PMQs to get us where we need to be. We need to win in parts of the country where Labour did very badly last December, and in many cases in years before that. In England, the clearest way to do so will be to win the four metro mayor positions we do not currently hold – beating Tory mayors in the West Midlands, West of England and Tees Valley and taking the new West Yorkshire mayoralty. Each of these seats is a realistic prospect for Labour but none can be taken for granted.
In Wales, Labour is narrowly ahead in most polling but given our collapse in the north of the devolved nation last December we can take nothing for granted. Welsh Senedd results are complicated by the voting system and the impact of votes for Plaid Cymru, the Lib Dems and the Greens, which can gift seats to the Tories. Yet the importance of Wales for Labour cannot be overstated – we must not let the narrative next May be that Labour lost Scotland in 2015, the Red Wall in 2019 and Wales in 2021. It would be hard in those circumstances to make the case that Labour is a government in waiting.
In England, there will be a bumper set of local elections. Given where we are in the cycle, it will be difficult for Labour to pick up large numbers of council seats. Our big win was supposed to be in 2019, but we underperformed badly as voters fled to the Lib Dems and the Greens in protest to our Brexit position. We cannot rely on a big council win to disguise losses elsewhere.
Our challenge is arguably greatest in Scotland, where the last decade has been catastrophic for Labour. We lost half our Scottish vote between 2010 and 2015. In 2019, we won only a third of the Scottish votes won by Gordon Brown. When for decades we could count on 40 or more Scottish seats, in the 2015 and 2019 elections we won a single seat. The small increase to seven seats in 2017 was down to our vote holding up while turnout overall fell.
In Holyrood, our trajectory has been downward since 2007. That year we won two thirds of the SNP vote and were a single seat behind, the Scottish Tories a distant third. When Holyrood was last elected in 2016 we won a handful more votes than the Tories but fewer seats. Polls since then have consistently put Labour in third place – we are in danger of becoming the Lib Dems of Scotland. This matters for governance in Scotland, for the question of Scottish independence and for the integrity of the union. And with it the likelihood of a Labour majority in Westminster, something that has never happened without circa 40 Scottish seats. Given the scale of the task, the inevitable question is: what must we do about it?
You could argue that holding the Tories to account for their pandemic response is the priority and that next May is far off, but this is merely to articulate the difficulty of being in opposition. There is no doubt that the pandemic response must take priority. Labour opposition can save lives by prompting better government choices. Where we are in power in Wales, mayoralties and councils, we are and must continue to do all we can to save lives – both from the pandemic and Tory incompetence. We must do the same for jobs and businesses as the economic crisis develops.
But we must also prepare for the next challenge. Even though resources are thin and real world priorities are beyond important, we must take next year’s elections seriously. As a party we must invest in the preparation required. As members we must get to work. There may not be Constituency Labour Party meetings or canvassing sessions but there are candidates who need help, there is phone banking to be done, there are conversations to be had with friends and family.
Next May can be a springboard for Labour into 2024 and back into government. Or it can be a missed opportunity and another chance for the Tories to cling on to power. Make no mistake, they will not be underprepared for next May. Boris Johnson wrote to Tory members in August asking for donations for their local elections campaign. They are getting ready, fully aware of the danger a winning Labour Party represents, and they will do whatever it takes to succeed, as will the SNP. We must do all we can to match them.