You can tell an awful lot about a politician by how they react to an election defeat. This week we learned that Sir Keir Starmer is neither a lucky general or is cool under fire. His interview on Friday afternoon was a textbook classic of how not to react. He looked like a rabbit in the headlights and didn't seem to comprehend the scale of what had happened. He promised to take "full responsibility" himself. Twenty four hours later we learned he had sacked Angela Rayner, the chair of the Labour Party and campaign co-ordinator. Given Labour's problems seem to be a lack of ability to reach out to northern working class voter, it didn't really seem a good idea to sack a norrthern working class woman. There then followed rumours that Lisa Nandy and Anneliese Dodds were for the high jump too. All women. Hmmm. Act in haste, repent at leisure. As I write this newsletter it is rumoured that Starmer is carrying out a shadow cabinet reshuffle. The trouble is, he doesn't have a lot of raw material to work with. Most of the big beasts of the Labour Party have gone. Yvette Cooper may decide she prefers chairing her select committee. Hilary Benn may decide that he's been there done that.
In some ways, Keir Starmer is a victim of expectations and circumstance. He's only been in the job for just over a year and in many ways the party is still suffering from Long Corbyn. The likes of Diane Abbott and John McDonnell have lost little time in sticking the boot in, accusing him of not having any policies. It's a fair accusation, but Starmer has been forced to play the long game. Had he announced a full manifesto, no one would have taken any notice as Covid dominates everything. His shadow cabinet have found it difficult to make any real impression. The general public don't know who most of them are. The next twelve months will be crucial, but I'm not sure doing a shadow cabinet reshuffle now will make things any better in the short term.
So what else can we learn from the various election results. Here are a few things...
1. Incumbency matters. The Conservatives in England, Labour in Wales and the SNP in Scotland were all rewarded for the vaccine rollout with the electorate thinking they would 'stick with nurse for fear of worse'.
2. The SNP only added one seat and didn't gain a majority, but that's rather academic given the Greens will support their call for a referendum. How Boris reacts to these calls may determine the path of politics in the next few years. I see a referendum as inevitable.
3. The Greens have gained a good clutch of council seats and an extra seat on the London Assembly. They have beaten the LibDems to be the third party in most of the major contests. If I were the LibDems and Labour I'd be worried about this, as they are becoming the home of the 'plague on all your houses' votes, as well as those who are disillusioned with Labour and the LibDems. In Tonbridge the other day I drove past three houses in a row, each with a green posterboard in the garden. I've never seen that before. They have more than doubled their total number of councillors to just under 200.
4. Finally the penny may drop on the left and they might try to understand the personal popularity of Boris Johnson. In 2008 Ken Livingstone underestimated him and in 2012, and lived to regret it. Labour have done this at every election since. They sneer at people who vote for him without trying to understand why. "It's not us, it's you," they seem to be saying to voters.
5. Keir Starmer had every right to look shellshocked. He realised that it's virtually impossible for him to win a majority whenever the election comes. In Scotland Labour went back by two seats, in Wales they may have added one to their total, but no one has seemed to notice the Conservatives increased their total by 5.
6. Labour point to the fact they won the Cambridgeshire and West of England mayoralties, and won the odd council seat in Kent and Sussex. Maybe, but they lost more than 300 overall (and lost 8 councils), while the Conservatives put on 250 and 13 councils. The Tories now have more council seats than all the other parties combined in England.
7. The LibDems should be seriously worried. They did gain one council in their traditional stronghold of St Albans, but overall they only put on a grand total of 8 councillors. They have a total of 572 from Thursday's elections. They have always been successful where they have built a local government base. That has now been eroded.
8. In Scotland the Conservatives maintained their second place, with 9 more seats than Labour and a 31% vote share, their highest for years, I believe. However, although Labour have two fewer seats they did increased their votes and Anas Sawar was the leader to emerge from the campaign with most credit. He'd only been in the job for eight weeks, but he now has a base to build on. Nicola Sturgeon seemed rather subdued (possibly just knackered) throughout the campaign.
9. Labour's strategy was all over the place. Initially they signalled their campaign would all be about nurses' pay, yet a couple of weeks in they changed their focus on to Tory sleaze. It just didn't cut through in any of the areas they needed it to. Deborah Mattinson's appointment as Head of Strategy for the Labour Party may be crucial. With her background in polling and focus groups, it's difficult to think that she would have made that most elementary of mistakes.
10. Look at the contrast between the results for Labour in Manchester and the West Midlands. OK, the incumbents both won, so there is a similarity, but there it stops. For the second time in a row Labour picked the wrong candidate in the West Midlands. On paper Liam Byrne was a far better candidate than Sion Simon. He could hardly have been worse, I suppose. But he ran a God awful campaign. Andy Street is a non political politician in many ways, and any campaign against him had to reflect that. Byrne's didn't. It was overtly political and it didn't work. Andy Burnham highlighted on how he had fought like a tiger for his region. Easier for him to do in office, than Byrne in opposition maybe, but he carried it off brilliantly.
Well, that's my twopennyworth. It's all provided a lot of food for thought. Jacqui Smith and I will be trawling through the entrails in an emergency For the Many podcast, which will be up Monday morning.