If Labour can't get ahead now, what hope is there for the party?

Sir Keir Starmer in Ipswich

Sir Keir Starmer during his visit to Ipswich in the summer. - Credit: CHARLOTTE BOND

I get the feeling that many, if not all, Suffolk MPs are distinctly uncomfortable about what happened in Parliament last week with the Owen Paterson affair.

Only three of them voted for the government-backed proposal, only to find that that the decision was reversed 24 hours later. The other four weren't in the House of Commons to vote.

Of these four Work and Pensions Secretary Dr Therese Coffey, the Suffolk Coastal MP, clearly had permission to miss the vote from the whips and was paired with an absent opposition MP - but Dr Dan Poulter and Peter Aldous clearly avoided the vote because they did not agree with it.

They did make a point by staying away, but to be honest I do feel they'd have made it even stronger if they'd turned up and voted against the government like a handful of their colleagues!

I'm not going to comment further on the conduct of the Prime Minister and his inner circle except to say it reinforces the view I expressed  a few weeks ago in this column.

What I do find interesting is that on his first day back in his office after recovering from Covid, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer was on the phone to regional news organisations to try to get his party on the front foot.

The call I received wasn't dominated by the sleaze issue - although it did come up briefly. It really focussed on how Labour is trying to build its support in places where it has slipped in recent elections like Ipswich and Lowestoft.

And he still has a massive job in that - a job that may well be far too difficult for his party to achieve on its own.

Most Read

Look at recent opinion polls. I know politicians will say "The only poll that matters is at the election" but the fact is no one looks as polls more closely than politicians.

There is some evidence that last week's shenanigans dented support for the government. But where did those votes go? Most suggest that the Labour vote remained relatively unchanged. The votes switched to the Greens or the Lib Dems with a few heading to Reform UK (ex Brexit Party, nee UKIP).

That doesn't need to be disastrous for Labour - but it does mean they can't be too cocky or triumphalist.

There are two other sleaze crises I can remember during my career. In 1995-97 the Tory government was mired in cash-for-questions sleaze and were faced by a resurgent Labour Party which had a leader with widespread support in the country. The result of the 1997 general election was inevitable.

In 2008-10 we had the expenses scandal in the House of Commons at the same as a world-wide recession that had blown up in the US.

Gordon Brown's Labour government was blamed because it was in power at the time (although many of the worst excesses of expenses that are still remembered like Duck Houses and Moats were attached to Tory MPs) but the Tories didn't win enough seats to form a government without bringing the LibDems into a coalition.

Labour is now, in some ways, where the Tories were in early 2008 - although David Cameron was seen as a more credible Prime Ministerial figure by most people then than Sir Keir Starmer is now.

That is not to say Sir Keir isn't credible. If you look at his background, listen to what he actually says, and think about the points he makes, there is much that should appeal to many who consider themselves politically unaligned.

But for some reason he really, really struggles to cut through and his party struggles to persuade the voters that they are a serious alternative.

His visit to Ipswich in the summer did work as a flag-waving exercise - even if his attempt at bingo-calling did look like a bit of a lame stunt. But will it really persuade more people to vote Labour?

Now he's talking about repeating that in Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth - that's a much tougher nut to crack because those seats now have Conservative majorities approaching 20,000. 

The problem Labour now has is that while the conditions might be right for a revival for the party, it's far from clear that they have the people in place to exploit those conditions. 

And that could be the best possible news for the chancers at the top of the current government!

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter