Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer’s electoral tests; what’s at stake – Victoria Honeyman

SINCE the general election in December 2019, the entire world has changed, including politics at Westminster.

What will this week's local elections mean for Boris Johnson?

Jeremy Corbyn is now on the backbenches while Sir Keir Starmer tries to steady the Labour Party. Brexit is done, to some degree, but has been overshadowed by the nightmare of Covid, lockdowns and tragic infection and mortality figures.

Politics has simultaneously never been more important but less welcome in people’s lives. The things in our lives which seemed concrete and immovable were blown away by Covid and local considerations have become more important than ever.

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After being reminded of the impact that local politics can have on our lives, and the delay in elections because of Covid, the country now has an opportunity to vote for a variety of local representatives, including regional mayors, members of the regional parliaments and assemblies and local councillors across the country.

This was Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer campaigning ahead of this week's local elections.

These elections are the first opportunity the national parties have had to “test” themselves and their policies with the electorate, but local elections are an uncertain playing field. Voters focus on a combination of local and national issues, meaning that the results are often claimed as a huge endorsement or criticism of national party politics when that may only be partially true.

For the Conservative Party, the local elections may be easier than they are for Labour. Under “normal” circumstances, the record of a party which has been in power (under three different leaders) for 11 years might be judged harshly – it has a record to defend.

However, the Tory government has an advantage here. Firstly, the party won the last general election, held 16 months ago, which gives it momentum and the hope that the local elections might be a continuation of national success.

Secondly, the Conservatives did “get Brexit done”, although it was not perhaps as extensive or positive as the party would wish to suggest. For those people who wanted Brexit to go away, it has, although the issues have now been repackaged as something else.

This week's local elections will be the biggest test for Britian's parties since the December 2019 general election.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the Government has spent the last year dealing with the fallout from Covid.

Whether it has done this well or poorly (and the jury is still out on that issue), the British public appears to be giving the party nationally a free pass because of the enormity of the issue. The final advantage which the Conservatives have is their opposition.

The 2019 general election result really shook the Labour Party, and with good reason. It wasn’t just the scale of the defeat, which was huge, it was the fact that this was the fourth election defeat in a row.

In desperation, the party looked for new leadership and, during the pandemic after a long election process, Sir Keir Starmer was elected. It was not an auspicious start for a leader.

Unable to speak at party conference, unable to travel or meet the electorate, Starmer was severely hamstrung in what he could do.

This was coupled with the need to completely overhaul the party structures to ensure they were more aligned with the new leadership, and rethink strategy and policy.

Essentially, Labour needed to be seen as different and new but that takes time and isn’t always easy to communicate to the electorate, particularly when the electorate have bigger things on their mind.

Labour has really struggled to be heard and it has tried to walk the tightrope of being a co-operative opposition and a critical friend.

That is not always a bad position to take in times of national emergency, but it does not usually win votes. By focusing on issues which the party feels have significance beyond Covid, sleaze and corruption being the most obvious, it hopes to make headway but the chances are slim.

The British public is, at least for the moment, willing to allow Johnson some breathing space to fix his mistakes as long as Covid figures reduce and the vaccine programme is a success.

In the middle of this national tussle are the local and regional issues which these elections highlight. People may vote based on national preference, but they also vote based on which councillors they know, who helped them the last time their bin collection was missed or who helped secure funding for their local playground renovation.

It is the different voting motivations which make local elections, mayoral elections and regional parliamentary and assembly elections a flawed indicator of national voting behaviour.

A good night for Johnson or Starmer would be welcomed by both men, but it will not guarantee them similar national success, despite the victor’s inevitable claims to the contrary.

Victoria Honeyman is an associate professor of British politics at the University of Leeds.

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