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The Observer view on Labour’s performance in last week’s elections

·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA</span>
Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA

The national mood is critical in determining the outcome of elections. Usually, we apply a calculation of economic satisfaction: has life got harder or easier in recent years and who do voters hold responsible? But in the extraordinary circumstances of a pandemic, the public sentiment towards the government has been understandably shaped by what voters make of the way it has handled matters of life and death. Right now, there is a palpable sense of relief as we appear to be re-emerging from the trauma of the past 16 months, with its terrible death toll and painful lockdowns. The vaccine rollout is continuing apace and far more successfully than in many other countries, infection rates are low and it feels as if life is gradually approaching something close to normal.

Related: 2021 election: latest results from local, Scottish and Welsh votes

The Conservatives were always going to benefit from this shift in the national mood; so have the Scottish and Welsh incumbent governments, with the SNP and Welsh Labour generally regarded by voters to have handled the pandemic well. While the Tories may have been in power for more than a decade, the country returned an 80-seat majority for Boris Johnson just 18 months ago, based on his “get Brexit done” campaign and his appeal as a fresh start, running as much against his Conservative predecessors as the opposition. Why would the voters who supported him change their allegiance so soon? The vaccine bounce has eclipsed concerns about the fumbled handling of the pandemic, Johnson delivered Brexit as promised and voters may feel it is too early to judge the government’s success on the other things that motivated them to support him.

That is the context in which Labour’s performance in the local and mayoral elections in England should be evaluated. It is difficult for a leader of the opposition to be heard so soon after the election of a new prime minister to whom voters delivered a resounding majority and who is broadly considered to be performing well. The expectation that Labour could transform its fortunes just 18 months after its historic 2019 defeat, its worst showing in almost 100 years, was always unrealistic.

But neither do the results suggest that Sir Keir Starmer has started to address the reasons for defeat, beyond succeeding a deeply unpopular leader in Jeremy Corbyn. The challenges facing Labour in England are immense and long pre-date Corbyn or Brexit. Labour has been losing support among working-class voters more quickly than among professionals for two decades. Initially, many of those voters stayed at home or lent smaller parties support, but since Brexit the Conservatives have successfully attracted them to their electoral coalition.

Age and education level have become increasingly salient as predictors of voting behaviour in the last decade: younger university graduates are more likely to vote Labour, older homeowners on average incomes to support the Tories. Brexit has accelerated this realignment of English politics but is better understood as a symptom than a cause. Labour cannot win under first past the post without building a broad electoral coalition, but the divisions within that historic coalition – between socially liberal voters more likely to have supported Remain and socially conservative voters more likely to have supported Leave – have become more significant than their shared values on the economy. There was no position on Brexit that would have avoided losing the party votes.

And Labour is more disadvantaged by this realignment than the Conservatives, because its votes tend to be concentrated in cities such as London, Liverpool and Manchester, whereas the Conservatives have become a competitive electoral force across much bigger parts of the country that include swaths of former Labour heartlands. There are no quick fixes to this conundrum. But, worryingly, under Starmer’s leadership these trends appear to be continuing to erode the Labour vote. There is evidence of a squeeze on both sides: Labour also lost votes to the Greens and Liberal Democrats in some areas. While our first-past-the-post electoral system will prevent a dramatic implosion, Labour could have further to fall; across the continent, many social democratic parties are engaged in a struggle for survival.

It is early days, but Starmer has not made enough progress in edging Labour back to electability. Externally, he should have been able to show voters that he understands why so many rejected Labour in 2019 and their aspirations and concerns in 2021: this is the first building block in the articulation of an alternative vision for the country. But Starmer appears to be a poor communicator who lacks an instinctive touch; the same can be said for too many of his top team. His attempt to adopt the patriotism of the flag came across as inauthentically formulaic; like Ed Miliband, too much of his language is technical and wonky rather than resonant. Internally, in the name of party unity, he has shied away from addressing hard truths with his membership about the need to speak from beyond the activist comfort zone. These are the things he needs to prioritise; without this foundation, Labour’s attempts to set out what it stands for are bound to fall flat. That one of Starmer’s first actions was needlessly sacking Angela Rayner last night as party chair, one of Labour’s most senior women and more able communicators, calls into question his judgment.

The Conservatives have a dreadful track record in government; the Brexit they have delivered risks widening regional inequalities and making people’s lives more difficult in the years to come. But Labour needs to earn the right to set out an alternative in the eyes of voters and Thursday’s results show it has not yet achieved that on anything like the scale it needs to. The existential questions that hang over Labour – who does the party exist to represent and how can it build a sufficiently diverse electoral coalition of voters to win under the Westminster electoral system as the electorate realigns – are not new but they are ones Starmer needs to make a better start at answering. No government can defy electoral gravity forever: eventually, the public mood will shift against Johnson’s Conservatives. What is by no means guaranteed in a shifting electorate is that that support will automatically transfer to Labour. Starmer must do more to explain to the public what a Labour government would achieve for Britain.