SIR KEIR Starmer will have judged the first few months of his tenure as Labour leader as an overwhelming success.
His net approval rating reached 31 per cent in a June 2020 Ipsos MORI poll, and the strategy of critical support for the government, while not impressing the Labour left, appeared to endear him to voters.
But a year into his reign – which has seen him, on occasion, take aim at the left of his own party more than the government – his approval is plunging. A YouGov poll on Monday showed his net approval rating dropping to minus 13.
As if the Scottish, Welsh and local elections this May didn’t provide enough of a sense of impending doom for Sir Keir, news emerged yesterday that Hartlepool MP Mike Hill had resigned, triggering a by-election.
Bookies currently have the Tories as favourite to take back the seat, and no wonder – just take a look at the result in 2019.
If Hartlepool turns blue – and depending on how the Brexit Party vote filters, it could well do so – it would represent an unprecedented disaster for the Labour leader.
The governing party has only one two by-elections in recent decades; Mitcham in 1982, and Copeland in 2017. After the latter, many Labour MPs on the right of the party suggested Corbyn should re-consider his position.
The former leader was far more unpopular with voters on a personal level, despite Sir Keir’s recent ratings plunge. The election was held a month before Theresa May signed Article 50; like 2019, the Tories won because of a strong pro-Brexit message in a Leave-voting seat.
It’s not as easy to do so when Brexit is all but complete, but it’s likely that, in a constituency where 69.5 percent of voters ticked the Leave box, the Conservatives can boast that they delivered the result.
Corbyn lost the 2019 election because of, among other things, Labour’s botched Brexit message.
Starmer’s challenge will be different – there will, naturally, be a focus on Boris Johnson’s pandemic response – but it represents the first major test for Starmer. Scottish voters will look at Anas Sarwar, the Welsh to Mark Drakeford, and with local campaigning resuming, councillors finally have a chance to lay their case directly to voters.
The Hartlepool by-election, however, will be a direct referendum on Starmer’s leadership. Should he win, the pressure will be off for the next few months, regardless of results elsewhere in May.
But should he lose, both Labour MPs, who resisted and occasionally sabotaged the former leader’s efforts, and the majority of members will have to reconsider if their decision to back the wrong horse has consigned them to another long period in opposition.
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