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The Chesham and Amersham by election victory for Liberal Democrats is a key moment in Kier Starmer’s term as Labour leader – his party managing to achieve its worst by-election result in the party’s history. Winning only 1.6% and losing its deposit, Labour finished in fourth place behind third-placed Green party.
This defeat was tantamount to raising the white flag but was actually yet another constituency, after Hartlepool, turning its back on Labour. The opportunity was there to make a statement as the government in waiting. Instead voters looked at Labour and saw nothing that met its needs and voted for a minority party – Liberal Democrats with 11 MPs before the by-election.
With a strong metropolitan base Labour were well prepared to fight for this outer London seat. Instead Liberal Democrats fought on local issues that mattered to constituents – HS2 and planning laws. This begs the question exactly far away are Labour from having both national and local policies that understand the needs of voters?
Kier Starmer set out his new term as Leader as Labour being “under new management” and sought to robustly tackle internal battles that were damaging Labour reputationally – namely the behaviour of parts of the party against its own Jewish members. This showed his strength but since then he has failed to assert a strong opposition to the Tory hegemony. As voters in Chesham and Amersham questioned, they don’t know what Labour is for.
The forthcoming Batley and Spen by-election is a third attempt for Kier Starmer. Already Labour supporters are warning that a defeat here will be a sign of failure and a call for his resignation. Opposition parties are supposed to do well in elections and the expectation on Labour is high. If voters felt ignored by Labour in Hartlepool and voted instead for the Tories then why did Labour not do more well in Chesham and Amersham where voters felt ignored by the Conservatives.
Labour needs to do more to appeal to different kinds of voters including the socially conservative residents of Amersham. Labour needs to do more to tap in to the growing discontent with the Tories in such a way that it chimes with voters. It needs to be left of the Tories in economics – who are using state intervention with the pandemic but not all Conservatives will tolerate this for much longer.
Labour needs a clear exit strategy out of the COVID pandemic that its own voters will relate to. It needs to rediscover its own working class culture by turning away from identity politics – by distancing itself from woke and remainer issues. Is Kier Starmer up to the job?