Labour demands UK election after routing Tories in local polls


Britain's main opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer speaks to the press after delivering a speech at Blackpool Cricket Club, to celebrate the victory of New Labour Party MP for Blackpool South, Chris Webb on May 3, 2024. [AFP]

Britain's Labour party on Friday urged beleaguered Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to call a general election, after making huge gains in English polls that included a seat in parliament.

Labour, out of power since 2010 and trounced by Boris Johnson's Conservatives at the last general election in 2019, won a host of local council seats and mayoral contests as well as the Blackpool South parliamentary seat.

Labour leader Keir Starmer said the emphatic victories nationwide, which included winning a new mayoral post encompassing Sunak's own northern English constituency, sent the prime minister a clear signal.

"Voters in Blackpool South have sent a direct message to Rishi Sunak: make way, let's have a general election," he said after visiting Blackpool to congratulate the new MP there, Chris Webb.

Sunak must order a general election to be held by January 28 next year at the latest.

He insisted voters will re-elect his Conservatives, as he sought solace in a Tory mayor winning a third term in Tees Valley, in northeast England, albeit with a vastly reduced majority.

"Come a general election, (voters) are going to stick with us too," Sunak said, as he celebrated the rare Conservative win, for Ben Houchen, on an otherwise dismal day of results.

Labour has enjoyed double-digit poll leads over the Tories for approaching two years.

The embattled prime minister, in charge since October 2022, had earlier conceded results so far had been "disappointing" but noted many were still to be announced.

"I am focused completely on the job at hand: that's delivering for people across the country," he told reporters.

Mayor battles

Labour began Friday by winning the Blackpool South constituency with a 26-percent swing -- the third-largest from the Tories to Labour at a by-election since World War II.

By evening, Labour had gained nearly 170 councillors, control of eight more councils and several new mayors -- in northeast England, Yorkshire and in the East Midlands -- after voting on Thursday.

The Conservatives were on track to lose around half the nearly 1,000 seats they were defending.

If replicated in a nationwide contest, the initial tallies suggested Labour would win 34 percent of the vote, with the Tories trailing by nine points, according to the BBC.

Sky News' projection for a general election using the partial results would see Labour become the largest party but short of an overall majority.

Speculation has been rife in Westminster that restive Conservative lawmakers could use dire returns to try to replace Sunak, forcing him to possibly call an immediate general election.

He has previously said he is eyeing the "second half of 2024".

The 43-year-old has failed to improve his party's dismal standing since succeeding Liz Truss.

Senior Conservatives played down the Blackpool defeat, noting it was triggered by a lobbying scandal that saw the area's ex-Conservative MP resign.

Houchen's win provided some respite.

The outcome of another key mayoral contest in the West Midlands is also seen as crucial for Sunak but not expected until Saturday.

The London mayoral election result, when Labour's Sadiq Khan is expected to win a record third term, is also due then.

Right-wing upstarts

The Tories were defending hundreds of seats they secured in 2021 when they led Labour in nationwide polls before the implosion of Johnson's premiership and Truss's disastrous 49-day rule.

Starmer said Friday's results showed that his party, beset by ideological infighting and claims of anti-Semitism under hard-left former leader Jeremy Corbyn, was rejuvenated.

The Tories are under fire nationally on issues ranging from the cost of living to transport and health.

Voters are also turned off by infighting that has resulted in five prime ministers since the 2016 Brexit vote.

"The results of the local elections have for the most part been deeply disappointing for the Conservatives," polling expert John Curtice wrote on the BBC's website. He called the party's performance "one of its worst ever".

The Blackpool defeat was the Tories' 11th by-election loss this parliament, the most by any government since the late 1960s. Sunak has been in charge during seven of them.

Worryingly for him, the Conservatives only beat the fringe Reform UK party into second place by 117 votes in Blackpool.

The party linked to Arch-Eurosceptic Nigel Farage won 17 per cent of the vote, its best-ever by-election performance, suggesting it could squeeze the right-wing vote at the general election.

Labour lost control of one local authority, and suffered some councillor losses to independents elsewhere, due to what analysts said was its stance on the Israel-Hamas war.