Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, is under mounting pressure ahead of Thursday’s local elections across Great Britain after new polls put his party far behind the ruling Conservatives in several key races.
Surveys showed the Labour party trailing in the Hartlepool by-election as well as the Tees Valley and West Midlands mayoralties.
All of these are critical bellwether contests in the party’s longer-term campaign to win back the “red wall” seats lost to the Tories in the 2019 general election, Labour’s worst election result for nearly a century.
The news comes as the Conservatives enjoy a poll bounce from the government’s successful coronavirus vaccination programme in recent months, in contrast to widely criticised pandemic missteps last year.
Speaking on Tuesday morning, Starmer said he would “take full responsibility” for the results later this week.
He told the Radio 4 Today programme that his job had been to rebuild the party after its “devastating loss” in 2019 and that this had always been a “mountain to climb”. “I don’t think anybody realistically thought it was possible to turn the Labour party around from the worst general election results since 1935 to a position to win the next general election within the period of one year,” he said.
In Hartlepool, which has always had Labour MPs since the seat was formed in 1974, a Survation poll gave the Tories a 17-point lead, at 50 per cent to 33 per cent.
“I hope we won’t lose Hartlepool, we’re fighting for every vote there and we know that every vote has to be earned, that’s why I’ve been there three times during the campaign,” Starmer said. “I have a burning desire to build a better future for our country. Thursday is a first step towards that future.”
Labour took a risk by putting forward a prominent Remain campaigner, Paul Williams, in a seat that voted 70 per cent for Brexit in 2016.
The Tories are also benefiting locally from the popularity of Ben Houchen, the mayor of the wider Tees Valley region, which includes Hartlepool, who is himself fighting for re-election.
A poll by Opinium Research on Tuesday put Houchen ahead of his Labour challenger, Jessie Joe Jacobs, by 63 per cent to 37 per cent. The incumbent has benefited from various Treasury initiatives targeting the region, including “freeport” status and the creation of a “Treasury North” department in Darlington.
A victory of that magnitude for Houchen would alarm Starmer’s team given that he only won by 51 to 49 per cent, in 2017.
Meanwhile Starmer’s team had hoped to win the West Midlands mayoralty, which is currently occupied by Tory mayor Andy Street, former head of retailer John Lewis.
Instead, the Labour candidate Liam Byrne appears to be lagging Street by 37 per cent to 54 per cent, according to a separate survey by Opinium.
Labour is also facing a struggle in some “red wall” councils, such as Dudley, Walsall, Doncaster and Derby, where the party could lose seats to the Tories.
Starmer used his radio interview on Tuesday to defend his position of “constructive opposition” to the government during the Covid-19 crisis. “On the failure last year to get protective equipment to the front line, in the failure to get testing going, we have been highly critical, as well as all the sleaze and dodgy contracts we’ve seen in recent months,” he said.
Starmer has not drawn up a detailed policy platform given the next general election is not expected until 2024.
He said, however, that his priorities were “creating the jobs for the future”, a guarantee for young people, a stronger skills and education agenda and a promise to bring decisions closer to people.
“We went into the pandemic with a weak economy,” he said. “The inequality built into our economic model is not only economically unjust but economically stupid.”