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Keir Starmer plays down Labour hopes for 6 May elections

The Guardian - Tue May 4 09:49

Keir Starmer has sought to manage expectations ahead of what he admitted will be a “very important set of elections for [Labour]”, but promised he would take “full responsibility” for his party across the country.

The Labour leader is fighting to rebuild the party and prove that, just over a year since taking over from Jeremy Corbyn, he is changing its profile with voters enough to switch from opposition to government at the next general election – in no more than three years’ time.

On Thursday 6 May there will be elections for mayors, police and crime commissioners, and local councils across England, as well as national elections for the Scottish and Welsh parliaments, not to mention two MP byelections.

With many of the races delayed by a year due to the coronavirus pandemic, the bumper set of elections has proved tough for political parties to mobilise grassroots support and decide where to focus their energy.

Starmer said Labour’s performance across the UK on Thursday would be a reflection on his leadership, and promised: “I take full responsibility for the results, just as a I take full responsibility for everything that happens in the Labour party under my leadership.”

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that “I hope we don’t lose” Hartlepool, which strongly backed Brexit and has been gradually slipping away from Labour for years. He said he had been in the constituency recently “fighting for every vote” in its byelection.

He added that he had a “mountain” to climb to restore Labour’s standing with voters, following the party’s performance at the 2019 general election under Corbyn.

“I don’t think anybody realistically thought it was possible to turn the Labour party round from the worst general election result since 1935 to a position to win the next general election within a period of one year – it was always going to take longer than that,” he said.

A new poll by Survation of 301 people likely to vote with undecideds removed has put the Conservatives on 50% in Hartlepool, with Labour trailing on 33%.

Although it was carried out from 23-29 April, meaning some respondents were quizzed before the Electoral Commission announced it was launching a formal investigation over Boris Johnson’s “cash for curtains” Downing Street flat funding row, the poll gave a further boost to Conservative hopes that their challenge to dismantle the “red wall” of Labour strongholds was not over.

Starmer said he had tried to lead a “constructive opposition” because people wanted to see political leaders “being prepared to have the confidence” to work together. But he insisted he had highlighted government sleaze and ministers’ failure to distribute enough protective equipment to health and social care workers, as well as having been “highly critical” of the time taken to ramp up coronavirus testing.

Reflecting on his past year as leader, Starmer also said he was “frustrated” he had not been able to meet voters properly, shake their hands and deliver speeches to rallies packed with people, given Covid restrictions, but that he had a “burning desire to change our country for the better”.