Labour’s defeat in the Hartlepool by-election is a crushing blow to Keir Starmer. He had told us his party was climbing its proverbial mountain, but Hartlepool – and the early results from Thursday’s local authority elections in England – suggests Labour is still slipping down it.
Hartlepool had been Labour since the constituency’s creation in 1974, and the area has had only one Tory MP since the second world war. Boris Johnson can celebrate a totemic victory which saw the governing party gaining a seat in a by-election for only the fifth time since 1945. The Tories’ huge majority of 6,940, overturning Labour’s 3,595 winning margin in 2019, will raise Johnson’s hopes of extending the red-turned-blue wall.
Starmer could make excuses: the vaccine rollout was a timely pre-election boost for Johnson, while coronavirus made it difficult to make headway in his first year as Labour leader. The one in four people who backed the Brexit Party in Hartlepool in 2019 were always likely to get the Conservatives over the line.
But Starmer is going to take this defeat on the chin – and argue it shows Labour needs to change further. That will alarm his left-wing critics, who believe his leadership is failing and are beginning to scent blood. They will now form an unlikely alliance with right-wing newspapers, always keen to keep Labour down and out.
The Labour leader’s project is worryingly behind schedule. His first priority was to show voters he is “not Jeremy Corbyn.” But in recent weeks, as Labour jitters over the by-election rose, Starmer allies suggested a “Corbyn effect” was still holding the party back.
That Starmer understandably prioritised rebuilding the red wall makes the Hartlepool defeat even more painful. He has avoided the Brexit issue and exposing the holes in Johnson’s EU trade deal. But there will be questions about fielding a Remainer, Paul Williams, in a seat where almost seven in 10 people voted Leave in 2016.
The result will be interpreted as a sign that Starmer is not cutting it personally. He has delayed his policy offer and now needs to answer urgently the “what does Labour stand for?” question. He will likely shake-up a shadow cabinet which has punched below its weight. While allegations of Tory sleaze may eventually make an impact, “time for change” works when a party can outline “change to what.”
Labour’s banging on about the “same old Tories” cuts little ice among socially conservative working class voters in the North and Midlands.
Normally, Labour would be able to take some comfort from victories elsewhere. But perhaps not this year. Sadiq Khan’s expected re-election as London mayor might only underline Labour’s fundamental problem: it is piling up votes in its liberal, metropolitan pro-Remain heartlands but not where it needs to under our archaic first-past-the-post system. Labour will desperately hope for some signs it is advancing in the south and west. In the Scottish Parliament election, its new leader, Anas Sarwar, has made an impact – but Labour might still end up in third place behind the Tories and SNP.
The Hartlepool result will fuel an internal Labour debate about whether the party has – by accident rather than design—given up on its traditional working class base. That is the fear of Jon Cruddas, Labour MP for Dagenham and Rainham. At this week’s launch of his thought-provoking book, “The Dignity of Labour” (Polity), he warned: “Maybe the die is already cast.” Cruddas does not believe a temporary “Boris effect” is responsible, fearing that “this could be an historic turning point.”
His book says: “Fashionable orthodoxy stretching from New Labour to Corbynism…affirms Labour should ditch a sentimental attachment to a working class encased in ‘traditional’ heartlands…Labour should hold its nerve and accept casualties in its ‘traditional’ seats as we transition towards our new heartlands, safe in the knowledge that the working class is withering away and doesn’t vote for us anyway.”
John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University, gives this theory credence by arguing there is potentially an election-winning coalition for Labour among younger voters, graduates and social liberals. Writing for the IPPR think tank, Curtice argued that while the Tories dominated the Leave vote, Labour shared the Remain vote with the Liberal Democrats and SNP.
With 80 per cent of Labour's vote now coming from Remainers, Curtice said there is a case that “the only realistic choice open to the party is to craft an appeal that will maintain and enhance its support among Remain voters, be they working class or not.”
I doubt Labour will or should go down this route. Many in the party would see it as turning its back on its history. Lisa Nandy, the shadow foreign secretary and MP for Wigan, shares Cruddas’ fears. She told his launch event that Labour’s lost voters “did not move away from us, we moved away from them. They are smarter than the political establishment that is supposed to represent them… they felt no one spoke for them and voted on that basis.”
Her words are even more worrying for Labour after its Hartlepool defeat. Starmer must now halt a dangerous narrative that Labour’s decline in the red wall is irreversible. Another difficult by-election looms in Batley and Spen if Tracy Brabin wins the West Yorkshire mayoral election. I believe Starmer is still Labour’s best hope – but he is going to have to start proving his critics wrong soon.
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