Has coronavirus made May’s local elections impossible to call?

Keir Starmer’s first electoral test comes amid possible ‘vaccine boost’ for Boris Johnson

A composite image of Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer appearing at PMQs
(Image credit: Leon Neal/Getty Images)

Labour is demanding to know how much the government spent on an upcoming documentary about the UK’s successful Covid vaccination campaign amid speculation that it could help Boris Johnson in May’s local elections.

A trailer for the film, A Beacon of Hope: The UK Vaccine Story, was shared yesterday on the prime minister’s official Twitter account. However, Labour strategists have accused No. 10 of using “the feelgood factor” from the vaccine campaign “to its political advantage”, The Guardian says.

A Downing Street source “conceded that the film was taxpayer-funded” but said it was “made in-house, as a thank you to those involved in the successful programme”, the paper adds.

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The release of the trailer comes as Keir Starmer prepares to launch Labour’s campaign for the May local elections, which the pandemic has made “especially difficult to call”, Politico’s London Playbook says.

Labour is fighting its campaign with the slogan “a vote for Labour is a vote to support our nurses”, aiming to make a pay rise for NHS staff a dividing line. But Playbook author Alex Wickham adds: “These elections are going to be fought in circumstances that make it particularly challenging for the opposition.”

“Labour’s campaigning strength is on the doorstep,” he continues, but pandemic restrictions make mobilising activists difficult. The fact that the news cycle “most days is dominated by Covid” also means that coverage of Labour’s policy positions is scant at best, Wickham says.

A Labour source told Politico that “the public’s focus is understandably on the pandemic, not on elections”, adding that Starmer also had a mountain to climb after “starting from the base of the disastrous 2019 election”.

However, Johnson also faces challenges after presiding over the deaths of 125,000 people during the pandemic and making unwanted headlines over Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s offer of a 1% pay rise for nurses that spent the past year on the frontline.

In January, the prime minister was “accused of seeking to delay” polling day to allow the Tories to benefit from a “vaccine bump” as the campaign reached more people, the Daily Mail reported.

While the date was not changed, HuffPost executive editor Paul Waugh reported later that month that Labour was “braced for the first impact” of the vaccination campaign to hit before the local votes, adding that “the success of the vaccine rollout” had “changed some of the calculations” around the prime minister’s popularity.

If the US presidential election is anything to go by, polling before election day may also be a challenge. US pollsters FiveThirtyEight said that Democrats were overrepresented in polls before the presidential vote because they were “stuck at home” due to coronavirus restrictions.

A study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation after the 2018 UK general election found that the Tories are more popular with “people on low incomes than they are among people on high incomes”, while Labour has become “as popular among the wealthy as it is among those on low incomes”.

With most of the UK’s white-collar workforce working from home, while blue-collar workers are returning to their pre-pandemic routines as restrictions ease, British pollsters may struggle to avoid the pitfalls described by FiveThirtyEight.

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Joe Evans is the world news editor at TheWeek.co.uk. He joined the team in 2019 and held roles including deputy news editor and acting news editor before moving into his current position in early 2021. He is a regular panellist on The Week Unwrapped podcast, discussing politics and foreign affairs. 

Before joining The Week, he worked as a freelance journalist covering the UK and Ireland for German newspapers and magazines. A series of features on Brexit and the Irish border got him nominated for the Hostwriter Prize in 2019. Prior to settling down in London, he lived and worked in Cambodia, where he ran communications for a non-governmental organisation and worked as a journalist covering Southeast Asia. He has a master’s degree in journalism from City, University of London, and before that studied English Literature at the University of Manchester.