Acid test for Labour's leader when voters give verdict in Super Thursday elections

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In a few days, voters will go to the polls for the first time since Labour’s red wall turned blue in a bumper set of local and mayoral elections.

And it will be Sir Keir Starmer’s, rather than Boris Johnson’s big test.

It is the first time the Labour leader has faced the electorate since becoming leader in the midst of the first national lockdown in April last year.

And his prospects look gloomy, with polling predicting he will not only lose the Hartlepool by-election – a seat that has always belonged to Labour – but also fail to win back the Tees Valley and West Midlands mayoralties.

Labour could also lose Bolton and Dudley councils – another setback in its bid to build back its broken red wall.

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Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer: ‘We are fighting for every vote’

Even if only some of that comes to pass, it would allow Mr Johnson – in some political hot water over the Electoral Commission investigation into how his No 11 flat refurbishment was funded – to claim he has consolidated gains made in 2019 into something far more meaningful than a Brexit blip.

For Sir Keir, the pressure will be well and truly on.

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Speaking to him out campaigning in Rawtenstall in East Lancashire, the Labour leader was frank about the task he was facing 16 months out from that disastrous general election result.

“I’ve got a huge task ahead of me,” he said. “There’s no doubt that taking the Labour Party from where we were, into a position where we can win an election, is a huge task.

“It is going to take time, I never thought we’d achieve that in one year -I don’t think anyone realistically thought we could achieve that in one year – but I do believe we’re making progress and heading in the right direction.”

Labour’s strategy will be to show it has made gains in northern metropolitan councils – Gateshead, Newcastle, Tyneside and Sunderland, Bolton – by improving on how it did in the 2019 elections.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer while on a campaign visit to tech firm Qioptiq in St Asaph, North Wales. Picture date: Tuesday April 4, 2021.
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For Sir Keir, the pressure on Thursday will be well and truly on

What the party might gloss over, is the low base from which it is building, with double figure declines in vote shares in those councils six months before that 2019 general election trouncing.

Look too, for signs of progress in some of the shires, where the threshold for success is low – Derbyshire, Northumberland, Durham.

But incremental gains in English council elections juxtaposed by a Hartlepool by-election loss, defeat in blue wall mayoral races and stuck in third place for another term in Holyrood, is a very sticky spot from which to claim progress.

And it matters, because Sir Keir doesn’t have many opportunities after Super Thursday (as this bumper crop of elections has been dubbed) to demonstrate he can rebuild in the sort of numbers he needs to have any hope of winning the next general election.

It won’t be in London or England’s big cities next year that Sir Keir’s metal will be tested: This is safe Labour territory already.

When Sir Keir insists Labour can build back in one electoral cycle, there are plenty in his party who think privately it’s more likely two. Time isn’t on his side.

Of course, there are real reasons why these elections are hard to interpret and extrapolate from.

The COVID-19 crisis has put normality on hold – for our lives, our communities and our politics.

Sir Keir has a fair point when he tells me Labour is “sailing into a very strong headwind” because of the vaccine bounce – just look at the poll lead Mr Johnson’s Conservatives have built up in recent months.

As one former cabinet minister put it: “Half a million people a day are literally getting a feel-good jab in the arm from the government.”

It explains too, why Labour jumped on the flat scandal with such glee: even if voters don’t seem to much care, it at least pushed gave Labour a psychological boost by pushing the vaccine roll-out off the front pages.

And there are some tentative signs the Tory vote could be softening with two polls out in recent days putting the party on a single-digit lead.

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Drill down into the individual battles, you can see why some of these elections might buck normal patterns at this point in the electoral cycle: Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen has built a huge personal following, helped by concrete funding for the local airport and a free port, from central government.

And as for Hartlepool, it has been a Labour constituency since the boundaries were re-drawn nearly 50 years ago. But it was also one of the most pro-Brexit towns in the UK and the main target seat for the Brexit Party in the 2019 election, which pulled in 25 per cent of the Hartlepudlians vote – so the big question is where those votes will go.

But politics is a tough business, and whatever the disclaimers, this is Sir Keir’s first real test.

He has told the public the party is under new leadership and how Labour fares on Thursday will be the acid test for whether they like what they see.

Sir Keir has said over and again Labour has a mountain to climb, he has to at the very least get beyond the foothills in this set of polls.

A bad result doesn’t mean his leadership is doomed but it does make it much harder for him to claim he can summit before the country next goes to the polls in a general election.