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Keir Starmer

A difficult weekend for Labour - but some successes to learn from

It has been a difficult weekend for Labour, with the party having significant losses in Thursday's elections.

The mood was perhaps set by the Hartlepool by-election, in which the Conservatives won the parliamentary constituency seat. Until then, Labour had held the seat since its creation back in 1974. Results since the declaration in Hartlepool have also proved bad for Labour, with the party so far losing control of 7 councils and losing over 300 councillors.

There are still some results left to be announced, but the fallout in the Labour Party is already underway. Meanwhile, the Conservatives are in a jubilant mood, having gained the former Labour heartland of Hartlepool, gaining 11 English councils and also making gains in Wales and Scotland.

Some would ask the question, how can a party facing questions about sleaze, and having faced significant criticism in the last year over its response to the coronavirus pandemic, be doing so well in an election? There are perhaps several possible answers to that question and those in the Labour camp will no doubt be frantically trying to work out what went wrong for their campaign.

So far, the blame game seems to have begun in the party, with arguments over who is responsible for the party's poor showing at the elections. According to reports, Angela Rayner has been sacked as chair and campaign coordinator for the party - a decision that caused anger amongst key figures in the party. It is understood that Rayner will be offered a different Shadow Cabinet role and that there will be a re-shuffle in the coming days.

Numerous MPs have said that Labour needs to ensure it is really changing the party for good and offering an exciting alternative to voting Conservative. Arguably, this was not the case for Thursday's elections in England and this can be seen as a cause for the losses.

It can also be useful to look at what happened outside of the council elections, as despite what it may look like, it wasn't all bad for Labour.

In Wales, Welsh Labour increased its seat tally in the Senedd and matched its best-ever performance in a Senedd election. Mark Drakeford, who himself increased his own constituency majority by over 10,000 votes, will remain as First Minister of Wales.

Labour's success in Wales can somewhat be put down to the Labour Government's response to COVID-19 over the last year. The Welsh Government has been much more cautious than Westminster in easing lockdowns and setting restrictions and has offered significant support packages for businesses and society. This approach has drawn criticism from some, including from opposition parties - for some time, Wales has had the lowest coronavirus case rates in the UK and some have called on the Government to ease restrictions faster. The steady approach has though been welcomed by many, and the election results would seem to show both approval and confidence in the Labour Government to continue its cautious response to the public health situation.

Speaking after the election, Mark Drakeford said people felt they have been "kept safe here in Wales" and attributed this to the election success for his party - also drawing attention to ambitious ideas in the party's manifesto.

Drakeford is a former university professor and doesn't have as much charisma as some politicians - some might even find him boring at times. His calm, cautious approach - along with relatively strong communication and ambitious policies - have though gained trust from the public who have made their voices heard at the election.

Elsewhere, Labour also retained Mayors in England, including in Greater Manchester where Andy Burnham won a landslide victory. Burham won 67.31% of the vote - an increase from 63.4% in 2017. The result perhaps wasn't in that much doubt, with Manchester tending to be a strong area for Labour.

Over recent times, Burnham has also grown his popularity, with him standing up to the government in 2020 over the implementation of Tier 3 lockdown measures on Greater Manchester. Dubbed back then as 'King of the North', that title has stuck and was trending once again on Twitter on Saturday. 

Burnham has promised to give Greater Manchester a voice and has stood up for it (and on occasions the North more generally), earning celebrity-like status. His first term as Mayor wasn't without hiccups - with him facing questions regarding his oversight of the police amongst other matters - but his other work to date, his public defences of the region and also fairly weak competition saw him comfortably secure a second term. 

Labour is by no stretch of the imagination a collapsed party - it is still by far the second-largest party in English councils and as results have shown in both the Mayoral elections and in Wales, there are parts of the party that are clearly working. However, the broader national approach of the party is not working, and this is something that those in the party will be desperate to try and fix.

In the media and elsewhere this weekend, Labour has been described as too London-centric and it is clear that this is a problem. Policies will inevitably be rewritten, shadow cabinet members shuffled and heads scratched over the coming days, weeks and months.

There are lessons to be learnt from Wales and elsewhere - realistic but radical policies, and truly winning the trust and confidence of working people could well provide a path for getting Labour back into power at future elections.

As they try to move forward and prepare to win back voters, it seems the next steps for Labour will be important, possibly painful and will by no means be easy.

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