Labour Mayor Wins Cap Triumphant Election Run for Starmer

(Bloomberg) -- Labour wins in the UK’s two biggest cities completed a string of local election successes by opposition leader Keir Starmer that showed his party firmly on course for victory at a general election later this year.

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Not only did Sadiq Khan comfortably win a historic third term as London mayor, but Labour candidate Richard Parker eked out an upset over the Conservative incumbent in the West Midlands, which includes Birmingham. The results announced Saturday dashed any hopes Prime Minister Rishi Sunak had for more positive performances to reassure Tories anxious the party could get wiped out in a general election expected later this year.

The defeat of West Midlands Mayor Andy Street, who had clashed with Sunak over the prime minister’s decision in October to cancel a high-speed rail line from Birmingham to Manchester, was a particular blow. Sunak’s allies had cast a Street victory as evidence that a popular incumbent could withstand a red wave of Labour support. He lost by just over 1,500 votes after a recount.

Starmer called the result “phenomenal” in a statement released late Saturday, saying it was “beyond our expectations.”

While the voting also carried some warning signs — such as defections to third parties over his Gaza policy — Labour racked up wins in councils and constituencies where the left-leaning party had lost ground in recent years. That’s important because Starmer needs to win 123 seats — double the challenge that faced Tony Blair a generation ago — to regain power.

Labour was benefiting from a desire for change after 14 years of Conservative rule in which Britain has experienced the upheaval of austerity, Brexit, Covid and a cost-of-living crisis. The Conservatives lost at least 473 local councilors, while Labour picked up 185. The ruling party fell to third place behind the Liberal Democrats in a tally of council seats won.

Chris Hopkins, research director for polling firm Savanta, said the results put Labour on track for a resounding victory in the general election, which Sunak must call by Jan. 25. “The disdain the country has towards the Conservatives outweighs any doubts there is over Labour,” he said adding that, “Labour are winning votes in all the right places.”

The results trickled in over a dramatic 36 hours, beginning on Friday with a resounding Labour victory in a bellwether parliamentary seat in Blackpool South, a pro-Brexit area that had joined then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s winning coalition in 2019. Labour took control of councils in Rushmoor, Redditch and Thurrock for the first time ever.

Starmer’s party went on to win 10 of 11 mayoralties up for grabs. Labour’s gains included newly created mayoralties in North Yorkshire, which includes Sunak’s home constituency, and the East Midlands, which pollster Luke Tryl described as the closest thing to “a pure contest that reflects what we might see in the general election as you’re going to get.”

The local elections had long been seen as a potential crisis point for Sunak, who has spent months trying to quash plots to oust him by Tories worried about a stubborn 20-point poll gap with Labour. The results largely confirmed the party’s worst fears, although key Conservative plotters acknowledged on Friday that there was little appetite to change leaders for the third time in a single Parliament.

In a statement Saturday, Sunak called the results “disappointing” but said that the losses have “redoubled his resolve” to continue with his plan. The Conservative Party will continue to work to take the fight to Labour, the Press Association cited Sunak’s statement as saying.

Former Home Secretary Suella Braverman stopped short of calling for a new leader but said she regretted backing Sunak in 2022. In a BBC interview on Sunday, she criticized the government’s failure to make a “bold offer” of tax cuts to voters and said he needs to put a cap on legal European migration and pull the UK out of the European Convention on Human Rights.

“The plan’s not working,” said Braverman, who was fired by Sunak in November. “I despair at these terrible results.” The local elections “suggest we’re heading for a Labour government and that fills me with terror.”

Conservative officials called Tory MPs over the weekend to emphasize what they said were results that showed the party wasn’t on course for a wipeout, according to a person familiar with the discussions. Sunak’s allies were expected to highlight Mayor Ben Houchen’s reelection in Tees Valley and a high-profile council victory in Harlow.

The prime minister has urged supporters to be patient and “stick to the plan” as inflation cools, the economy improves and the government’s efforts to reduce a surge in migrants across the English Channel take hold. Conservative MPs said privately that Sunak needed to make a more compelling case on how he can improve the party’s fortunes to avoid another challenge.

There were also signs of divisions within the broad coalition that Starmer must keep together to win power, with Labour losing support in areas with large Muslim populations over the opposition leader’s stance on the war in Gaza. The party notably ceded control of the council in the Manchester suburb of Oldham — a traditionally Labour area where two of the party’s councilors quit last month to become independents, citing its Gaza policy.

Starmer needs every vote he can get. One popular metric for using local elections to forecast broader support — the BBC’s projected national vote share — showed Labour leading by 9 percentage points. While that level would be enough to become the largest party in Parliament, it would fall short of an outright majority.

“The results of the local elections confirm the message of the opinion polls,” John Curtice, a professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde, told Bloomberg. “The Conservatives have made no discernible progress in closing the gap on Labour and at present are at risk of a heavy defeat in the forthcoming general election.”

--With assistance from Isabella Ward, Alex Wickham and Donal Griffin.

(Updates with Braverman comments in 12th paragraph.)

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