Labour says it is 'game on' in Scotland as it celebrates English local election results
“You didn’t just get it over the line, you blew the doors off,” Sir Keir Starmer told cheering activists in Chatham, Kent. The Labour leader was celebrating a “historic” victory for his party in the English local elections. “Make no mistake, we are on course for a Labour majority at the next general election.”
This was Rishi Sunak’s first big electoral test as Prime Minister, and the Conservatives took a hammering. Labour and the Liberal Democrats seized control of Tory councils across England, while losses in the North, South and Midlands will cause deep concern as a general election looms next year.
Sir Keir said the “fantastic” results, combined with a hoped-for recovery in Scotland, would give him a majority in Westminster after a national poll. “We’ve changed our party,” he told jubilant supporters. “We’ve won the trust, the confidence of voters, and now we can go on to change our country. Change is possible. A better Britain is possible.”
These results relate to England only, of course. But a BBC projection found Labour would have a nine-point lead over the Conservatives if they were replicated nationally. Vote share analysis put Labour on 35 per cent, the Tories on 26 per cent and the Lib Dems on 20 per cent. That was the same for Labour last year, but the Conservatives had sunk from 30 per cent.
In Scotland, political insiders were paying close attention. "This English local election is really important for Scotland, because it sets the frame for the next election,” a senior Scottish Labour figure said. “Scotland can play its part in booting the Tories out of Downing Street, but Labour are the only party that can do that.
"We have said that for two years. But we now have a verifiable example of it being true. You extrapolate these election results out across the country, you see what needs to happen. We can beat the Tories, and Scotland can have a role in it."
Despite the party’s gains, Sir John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University, suggested Labour would be disappointed its share of the vote had not increased further. “Labour are going to have their biggest lead over the Conservatives in terms of votes than at any point since 2010, but it’s going to be as much to do with the Conservatives being down as much as it is Labour being up,” he said.
Nevertheless, there is a sense of optimism in the party that would have been unheard of not so long ago. Labour currently has just one MP north of the border – Ian Murray, the shadow Scottish secretary. He said the local elections in England, “alongside Labour recovering in Scotland, show that we are on course for a majority Labour government”.
He added: “Labour has spent the local elections campaign focused on the cost of living, while the Tories have tried and failed to hide from their abysmal record. With the SNP mired in scandal and under police investigation, it is game on for Labour in Scotland and we stand ready to offer change to Scotland with a Labour government across the UK.”
Labour believes it will be “competitive” in 15 to 20 seats across Scotland in next year’s general election. "We're not going to win all of them, but we are competitive now in a much broader range of seats than we were even at our conference in February,” the senior figure said.
"A really good example of that is, in February, I probably thought that we were really competitive in three or four Glasgow seats – North West, North East, South and South West. I think every single seat in Glasgow is now in play.
"I think the Lothians are probably going to vote Labour. I think Edinburgh has now at least one more competitive seat in it, in North and Leith. I think there are a number of seats now that are competitive in Fife.
"I think, basically, the last six months has seen us going from a seat strategy that saw us piling resources into ten seats, to piling resources into upwards of 20 seats, to try and push them as close to knife-edge as we can."
They added: "I think we won't win them all, just being frank with you. Anything above ten, for me, is a f**king ecstatic day."
With the SNP facing an internal crisis and the Tories struggling, Labour insiders see an opportunity to step into the gap. "Obviously, the Labour Party is benefiting hugely from the collapse of the Tory vote,” the senior figure said. “But that's how elections are won."
SNP Westminster leader Stephen Flynn said it is “increasingly clear” his party can hold the balance of power after the next general election, “putting Scotland in prime position to pull the strings of a minority UK government”.
He said: "Voting SNP is the best way to beat the Tories in Scotland – and every vote for the SNP will be crucial to ensure Scotland wields real power and influence. With the pro-Brexit Labour Party lurching to the right, and becoming indistinguishable from the Tories, the SNP will make certain that real change happens.
"The SNP would ensure the power to determine Scotland’s future is transferred to Edinburgh, that the cost of living crisis becomes the main priority of Westminster and that relations with Europe are rebuilt and renewed.”
Sir Ed Davey, leader of the Lib Dems, said his party had “delivered a hammer blow to the Conservative Party in the blue wall”.
Mr Sunak conceded the results were “disappointing” but said he was “not detecting any massive groundswell of movement towards the Labour Party or excitement for its agenda”. Tory activists can only hope he is right.
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