Skip to main content

Can Labour afford to miss open goals?

By Chris White
15 February 2024
Public Affairs

Conventional wisdom suggests that politically this should be a good week for Keir Starmer. Polling puts Labour twenty points ahead in the polls as two winnable by-elections take place today, and the UK slipping into recession has left the Prime Minister red-faced. 

Yet what should have been a political open goal has proved anything but. The Conservatives, damaged by the resignation of Chris Skidmore over policy disagreements on net zero, and the embarrassment caused by Peter Bone’s recall petition, chose a rapid by-election timetable to get the pain out of the way. 

In any normal by-election, hordes of volunteers would descend on the seats, ready to harass local residents with a mixture of door-knocking and leaflets extolling the virtues of the new candidate. MPs and those on the candidates list would be instructed to visit the seat on at least three occasions, and the volunteer party would be deluged with instructions on how to do telephone canvassing from the comfort of their homes. 

Instead, there was a baffling silence from the Conservative party machine. MPs, candidates and the voluntary party received no orders, and the papers played ‘hunt the candidate’ in Wellingborough, where the local party had almost incredibly chosen the partner of the disgraced outgoing MP as the candidate. Instead of hundreds of activists, the local party office was near deserted. 

This should have been a decent victory for Labour – certainly in Bristol where they are very likely to win, and even in Wellingborough. However last night, the only constituency poll conducted during the Wellingborough campaign has put the result as ‘too close to call’, with Labour voters much less likely to turn out than Conservative supporters, despite the circumstances of the recall petition and the lacklustre Tory campaign. 

In part, this could be down to the turmoil surrounding the Labour leader’s decision-making in the third upcoming by-election in Rochdale, following the sad loss of Tony Lloyd. Labour had gone down the well-worn by-election route of selecting a local candidate in Azhar Ali, its Leader of Lancashire County Council.  However, the revelation that he claimed Israel had allowed the 7 October attacks by Hamas as a pretext to invade Gaza initially saw Labour stand by the candidate, claiming an apology was sufficient. 

Keir Starmer has won plaudits for his efforts to stamp out antisemitism in the aftermath of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, where the Equality and Human Rights Commission had found that the Labour party could have tackled antisemitism more effectively ‘if it had chosen to do so’.  Tireless efforts had been made to rebuild trust with the Jewish community, so it was extremely surprising to see Labour stand by Mr Ali for several days, until further information came to light that Mr Ali blamed Jewish media figures for fuelling criticism against a pro-Palestinian Labour MP. 

Labour have now dropped its support for Mr Ali, who remains as a candidate for the Rochdale by-election due to the short timeframe before the poll at the end of the month. What should have been a chance to demonstrate strong leadership and act quickly, has instead shown a level of uncertainty in the Labour leader’s office, and an ability to make mistakes when a sure-footedness is needed. 

This is also reflected in the turmoil over the decision to abandon Labour’s flagship £28bn green investment policy last week. It was plain to see for months that this was a policy that was committed in healthier economic times and was unaffordable in the post Truss era as the cost of borrowing has increased. Labour could and should have dropped this policy a long time ago, blaming it on the Conservatives poor handling of the economy, yet it became a lightning rod for discontent in the different Labour tribes, having a negative impact on the party in general. 

The closer Labour gets to power, the higher the level of scrutiny it will be subject to. Labour should still win the by-elections overnight, and the party can afford to make some mistakes and still recover. However, missing too many open goals may come back to haunt them if the polls start to tighten.