Adam Boulton: Sir Keir Starmer risks complacency by suggesting job all but done after local elections

As daylight broke on the English local election results a week ago, Sir Keir Starmer popped up in the Kent council district of Medway - which Labour had just captured from the Conservatives - to declare that Labour is "on course for a majority government".

He stuck to his line doggedly this week under tough, evidence-based questioning from Sky's political editor Beth Rigby.

A Labour majority government after the next election would be a big deal for the United Kingdom.

It would be the first switch in direction, from rightward to leftward, for 14 years - after four consecutive general election defeats for Labour.

So was Sir Keir right? Is Labour on course for a majority victory? Was his bold claim good campaigning? What should Labour do between now and then to make it come true?

Another majority victory would be a stunning achievement for Labour in this Conservative-leaning country, in which the Tory Party have enjoyed the lion's share of government over the last two centuries.

Of the five Labour prime ministers since 1945 - there have been 12 Conservative PMs in that time - only Clement Attlee and Tony Blair scored knockout victories at the first time of asking.

Harold Wilson, Labour's only other election winner, took two general elections close together each time in the 1960s and 1970s to consolidate his position.

Two of Britain's best-known election analysts share a similar verdict after going through the local election statistics: very bad for the Conservatives, good but not there yet for Labour and promising, for lower stakes, for the Liberal Democrats and Greens.

On the basis of last week's vote neither guru points to Labour enjoying a parliamentary majority of 326 MPs or more.

For Sky News, Professor Michael Thrasher of Oxford's Nuffield Politics Research Centre puts general election equivalent vote shares at Labour 36%, Conservatives 29%, Liberal Democrats 18% and others 17%.

Sir John Curtice of the University of Strathclyde, marked both main parties down slightly on the BBC: Labour 35%, Conservatives 26%, Liberal Democrats 20%, others 19%.

For reference, shares at the last general election in 2019 were roughly Labour 32%, Conservative 44%, Liberal Democrat 12% others 12%.

What would political picture look like if last week's local vote had been a general election?

Had last Thursday been a general election, Professor Thrasher projects that Labour would have had 298 MPs (+95), with the Tories on 238 (-127), Liberal Democrats 39 (+28) and others (including the Scottish National Party) 75.

Sir Keir would either have found himself the leader of a minority government, dependent on passive endorsement from other parties, or in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats.

There is one analysis which is more hopeful for Labour. Stephen Fisher, professor of political sociology at Trinity College, Oxford, says "Starmer might be right".

It should be said that any projections for the whole UK from last week's elections are fiendishly difficult. Last week was the biggest test of voter opinion before the next general election but it only involved some councils in parts of England, and none in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland or London.

Electoral geography is changing

Rather than work on the basis of uniform swings across the country, Professor Fisher delves into detailed voting patterns in types of constituencies. He argues that the electoral geography is changing.

The swing to Labour is bigger in seats where it is the challenger to the Tories, he says, and the Brexit dividend is dwindling, which should mean an extra 15 MPs for Labour above the national trend.

Opinion polls also suggest Labour should pick up 11 seats in Scotland. "That would give Labour a majority of 32," he writes in Prospect Magazine.

Maybe. Veterans of the three New Labour victories point out that "Tony" never took winning for granted and indeed prepared elaborately for talks with the Liberal Democrats, had he fallen short in what turned out to be the Labour landslide win in 1997.

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Perhaps Sir Keir simply wanted to thank his supporters by cheering them up. Unfortunately he was also in danger of looking complacent by suggesting the job was all but done.

Why campaign harder in the months until the next general election if it is a done deal? If you are not sure, why bother to make a tactical switch to Labour, if their boss says he's going to win anyway?

If Labour ends up the biggest party in a hung parliament, Sir Keir will be a failure in his own terms, having weakened his own hand for any talks with other parties.

Rishi Sunak gave a hint of the direction he thinks the contest is really moving at Prime Minister's Questions when he rebuffed Sir Keir's buoyant mood with a quotation from Tony Blair: "The right honourable gentleman can be as cocky as he likes about the local elections; come a general election, policy counts."

When Mr Blair said that, in May 2007, the party roles were reversed.

Blair was prime minister, David Cameron the leader of the opposition. Mr Blair would hand over to Gordon Brown a few weeks later. Labour had just lost 900 seats in council elections. Mr Blair added: "On policy we win, he loses". He was not proved right when the election came around in 2010.

But parliament was hung with Mr Cameron on 306 MPs, 20 short of a majority. Mr Sunak or his researchers clearly see an analogy and are working to limit the extent of the damage to their party.

Sir Keir on course for an underwhelming success

Voters seem to agree that Sir Keir is on course for an underwhelming success. In a YouGov poll this week, 22% thought Labour would have a narrow overall majority while 17% expected it to be the largest party in a hung parliament.

Just 11% are waiting for a big Labour victory. Only a third of those surveyed gave the Conservatives any chance of forming the next government.

A YouGov/TimesRadio poll asking 2019 Conservative voters their top reason for switching to Labour found 30% think the Conservatives are doing a bad job; 15% feel a need for change; 11% no longer trust the Tories.

The overwhelming motivations are negativity about the Conservatives rather than positivity towards Labour or its leadership.

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In these circumstances Labour strategists see little need to strengthen their party's policy offering now. They point out that Mr Blair kept back his five pledges card, including the no tax rise guarantee, until weeks before polling day while the biggest economic initiative - Bank of England independence - was kept under wraps until Mr Blair and Mr Brown were safely in Downing Street.

Sir Keir and Mr Sunak have each unveiled pallid five pledge lists of their own. But continuing economic difficulties are already discrediting their cautiously caveated offers.

Labour's best-defined pledges are economic raids on soft targets such private schools, oil companies and big business. Sir Keir is devoting much of his energy to personalised attacks on Mr Sunak, mainly for his family wealth. Repetition of these lines may perhaps bring over new voters.

After canvassing recently in prosperous "safe Tory" constituencies, some veteran door-knockers are inclined to agree with Sir Keir and Professor Fisher that the mood of the voters has changed irrevocably against the Conservatives.

The Tories will be defeated heavily by Labour when ever the election comes, they fear, even at the latest date in 18 months' time.

A more dispassionate analysis is that the Labour Party need to make 139 gains for a Fisher-style victory. They have only done that three times in history.

"You'd have to ask yourself 'is that the zeitgeist of 1924?" wonders Professor Thrasher.

In 1929 Labour fielded candidates across the board for the first time. 1945 witnessed "the days of hope" when Attlee turned out the wartime leader Churchill. In 1997 the Tories were sleaze-ridden and divided, while Labour united behind the charismatic leadership of Mr Blair.

Is Britain "on course" for another epochal election? The evidence is mixed so far.

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