Keir Starmer is braced for a challenging 48 hours ahead of a bumper set of elections, as his critics prepare to seize on weaknesses in Labour’s performance to demand a fresh approach.
After a leaked poll showed the party on course to lose badly in the Hartlepool byelection, the Labour leader said he would take responsibility if the results of Thursday’s polls were disappointing.
“When things go right, the leader takes the plaudits; when they don’t go right, the leader carries the can and takes responsibility,” he said on the campaign trail in Birmingham. “That’s what I will do with these elections, as I will do in everything that the Labour party does.
“I’m conscious, the whole party is conscious, that this is but a step on the road to the next general election.”
Crisscrossing England on the final day of campaigning, Starmer also visited a food bank in Pontefract with Labour’s West Yorkshire mayoral candidate, Tracy Brabin.
Thousands of council seats across England will be contested on Thursday, as well as every seat in the Scottish parliament and Welsh Senedd, and English mayoralties including in the West Midlands, Teesside and London.
Starmer’s team are acutely aware that Hartlepool’s will be one of the few results announced by Friday morning, with ballots in most local council and mayoral elections not being counted overnight.
With some critical MPs preparing to break cover and question the leadership’s approach to winning back voters in Labour’s former heartlands, that could allow a downbeat narrative to take hold before results have been announced for areas where Starmer’s team hopes to do better.
The Guardian revealed on Tuesday that Labour’s canvassing in Hartlepool suggested only 40% of the party’s previous supporters had pledged to vote for its candidate, Paul Williams.
Boris Johnson played down the Tories’ prospects of stealing the seat on Wednesday, insisting his party were “fighting for every vote”.
Campaigning in the West Midlands, where Conservative Andy Street is expected to retain the mayoralty, the prime minister said: “I think Andy Street has done an outstanding job in the West Midlands, I think Ben Houchen is a fantastic mayor in Teesside and obviously we are fighting for every vote in Hartlepool.
“But these are tough contests and Hartlepool in particular you’d have to say, that hasn’t been a Conservative since its inception – 46 years ago or whatever it was. So I think that will be a very tough fight but I hope everybody gets out to vote.”
During the campaign, the Tories have highlighted investment in local infrastructure and national spending pledges, including plans to hire 20,000 new nurses.
Labour MPs across England contacted by the Guardian about the mood on the doorstep warned of “apathy” among voters. Some complained about Labour’s lack of concrete proposals to sell to a sceptical electorate. “There is zero policy,” said one frontbencher.
“People don’t really know what we stand for, so we’re having to fall back on the time-honoured tradition of anti-Tory sentiment,” complained another MP.
“The focus of getting people to vote Labour who did previously and don’t any more is the right one – but it’s the way they’ve done it,” said a leftwing backbencher. “They’ve approached it in a way which is a caricature of northern, working-class people: beer, fish and chips and flags.”
Several warned that the Green party were eating into Labour’s support in some areas, attracting voters who had previously warmed to Jeremy Corbyn, while Labour does not yet appear to be replacing them by winning over ex-Tory voters.
“We’re getting eaten now at both ends of our support,” said a former shadow cabinet minister. “We need to redouble our efforts now to show people that we’re in business.”
Starmer’s team said they had been hampered by the difficulty of on-the-ground campaigning and the struggle to get their message across during the pandemic. “In some ways, these elections have come too soon for us,” said a senior party strategist.
They pointed to the long-term realignment that has seen Labour’s vote share falling across a swath of seats in former industrial areas, as their demographics have changed over the past decade.
But a poor performance is nevertheless likely to intensify recent calls for Starmer to reshuffle his shadow cabinet, some of whom have struggled to make a significant impact on the public consciousness.
In Scotland, where the new Labour leader, Anas Sarwar, has only been in place for a few weeks, the party is nevertheless hoping to see what one insider called “red shoots” appearing.
Sarwar gave an upbeat speech at a drive-in political rally in Glasgow on Wednesday, where he was preceded by the former Labour prime minister Gordon Brown, who urged voters to be proud of voting for the party.
Speaking to journalists afterwards, Sarwar, a former MP, conceded that winning the Hartlepool byelection would be difficult for his party.
“Hartlepool is a really, really challenging seat. I don’t think we can escape the fact that there was a huge Brexit party vote in the last election; that poses its own challenge.”