Keir Starmer is promising a “great renewal” for the NHS as he begins to sketch out Labour’s plans for government, capitalising on the scandals engulfing the Tory party.
With Labour drawing ahead in the polls, party strategists are keen to point to what a Starmer government would aim to deliver were he to win the next general election.
Setting out his expectations for the NHS in the Guardian, Starmer said: “Our focus will be on the sort of renewal that has only ever been possible under Labour governments.
“Just as the Blair government refocused the health service towards outcomes, we would switch focus from simply treating illnesses to preventing them. When I was director of public prosecutions, hardly a case came across my desk where early intervention couldn’t have turned lives around before they unravelled. The same is true in health.”
He also stressed the role technology had to play, such as “hospital at home” systems where patients can be monitored remotely, saying the answer to the health service’s challenges was not “simply throwing money at the problem”, but being “forensic with investment”.
Starmer, who will address the Fabian Society conference on Saturday, also accused the government of being too preoccupied with the Downing Street party scandal to govern the country. “Precious time is being wasted on the latest internal psychodrama of the Tory party instead of sorting out the mess they have made,” he said.
Labour hopes to capitalise on Johnson’s battered reputation to outperform the Conservatives in May’s local elections in England as the next step in Starmer’s plan to revive the party’s fortunes.
All London borough councils are up for grabs on 5 May, as well as one-third of seats in a string of metropolitan boroughs. Most were last fought in 2018, when Jeremy Corbyn was leader, a year after the 2017 general election campaign when he deprived Theresa May of her majority.
The projected national share of the vote from those May 2018 council results put Labour level pegging with the Conservatives on 35%. This year, Labour hopes to come out ahead.
“We’ve never actually won a set of elections, whether that be locals, European or national, since 2014, under three leaders,” said a Labour strategist. “It’s almost certainly the longest losing streak of a political party here in history. We have to break that this year.”
Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats hope to make inroads in council elections in “blue wall” areas where they hope to take seats at a future general election. Ed Davey’s party pulled off a stunning victory in the North Shropshire byelection last month, after laying the groundwork with an enthusiastic campaign in last year’s local elections.
Conservative MPs are being warned the party could lose Wandsworth, Westminster and Barnet in London – though Labour sources are cautious, pointing out that even in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum when Labour was riding high in London, Wandsworth remained out of reach.
The elections analyst Robert Hayward said that while the recent change in polling numbers made the May elections more challenging for Johnson, the likely focus on results in London, a Labour stronghold, posed issues for Starmer as well.
“Until recently, they were in a pretty strong position as governments go 11 years into power. And clearly, things could change again between now and May,” Hayward said.
While boundary changes in Tory-held Wandsworth were likely to help Labour gain that, he said, other Labour targets of Westminster, Barnet and Hillingdon remained too close to call.
“The stakes are high for both leaders,” said Hayward, who is also a Conservative peer. “Starmer is perceived as being metropolitan. How would you feel as a Labour MP in a marginal seat in the Midlands or the north if he can’t even sweep the expected London boroughs?”
If Johnson’s future remains at stake in May, one key indicator for the prime minister would be results in places such as Sandwell, Rotherham and Doncaster, where the Conservatives gained seats in last year’s local elections, Hayward said. “Has the tide gone back out for the Tories in those sorts of places, has it partially gone out, or has it not gone out at all?”
One boost to Johnson could be a poll bounce if Covid restrictions were to be largely abolished, with cases falling, as happened over the vaccination drive last year, he added. “I think that’s very possible, and that will be one of the things No 10 is praying for,” he said.