There’s no way of dressing up these results – as they continue to trickle in – as anything other than a disaster for Keir Starmer’s Labour Party. Yes, the vaccine programme has given the Government a boost. No, he’s not had long to establish himself in the public imagination (and in the most trying of circumstances). But those are excuses that are insufficient to the magnitude of the problem.
The Conservative Party has been in Government for over a decade. They have presided over the collapse of the public realm through disinvestment and austerity. They have fought each other tooth and nail over Europe. They are mired in allegations of sleaze and their track record in managing the country through a national crisis has been… patchy, shall we say? Maybe it is too soon for Keir Starmer to be making massive gains. But, in these circumstances, it is not unreasonable to expect him not to be leading his party backwards. Labour should at least be able to hold on to its own seats – in Parliament, on councils – in a mid-term election. Instead they are losing them. To the Government.
What does it mean? The glee on the Left of Labour is not even barely concealed. They are grinning like Cheshire Cats in the belief that these results somehow vindicate Corbyn’s leadership and approach. On the party’s Right there is frustration that Starmer has not managed to cut through more effectively and that progress is not being made. But – often – the prescription offered here is just as plagued by nostalgia as that of the unreconstructed Bennites they love to loath. 1997 was twenty four years ago, lads. And back then, it wasn’t voters in Hartlepool that you had to persuade to switch from Blue to Red. It was estate agents in Swindon.
The collapse of Labour in England outside of its new strongholds – the metropolitan cities – is starting to resemble the party’s disintegration in Scotland. There, as here, a referendum sparked a game of ideological musical chairs. There, as here, when the music stopped Labour found itself without a seat. In Scotland that shift has proven to be, if not permanent then certainly durable. These results do indicate that non-urban England is again following the pattern set by voters North of the Border. A Government-in-waiting Labour is not.
Of course, what happens next in Scotland will shape a great deal of our politics over the next few years. If Sturgeon emerges with a majority over the weekend then she will ask for a referendum. If Boris Johnson refuses her that – as he surely will – then we will be into yet more complex legal and political wrestling over the constitution. Meanwhile Northern Ireland teeters on the brink of yet another collapse of devolution, a plague continues to hover menacingly, public debt is rocketing.
And there sits Boris Johnson. Untroubled and untouched – so far – by the controversies or the cock-ups. A chameleon of sorts, able to adapt and regenerate to suit the moment, pretty much any moment, with a party that seems happy to park its political preferences provided he keeps on winning.
The most successful viruses thrive because they are able to quickly change shape and adapt to outpace the body’s immune system. This is Keir Starmer’s problem. He is not fighting a monolith, he is fighting a shape shifter. And so far he has failed to land a blow. Novel Borisvirus continues to let rip.