Hartlepool – what went wrong?

By Mike Phipps

The Hartlepool by-election result raises fundamental questions about the current direction of the Labour Party under Keir Starmer. The Conservatives won the seat from Labour with 51.9% of the vote. Labour slumped to 28.7%, giving the Tories a majority of nearly 7,000 votes.

The swing to the Tories from Labour was 16%, which is more than can be accounted for by the collapse of the Brexit Party, which got 26% of the vote in 2019. With Labour losing 9 points from its 2019 vote share, it seems clear that the scale of the Tory win is explained by Labour defections. But turnout also plummeted, with 12,000 fewer voters going to the polls.

Several questions are raised by this disastrous result for Labour. The first question is: how far was the Hartlepool result the consequence of specifically local factors and how far was it part of a national problem for Labour?

There is a case to be made for Hartlepool exceptionalism. Sienna Rodgers, writing on Labour List, reported, “Asked about the idea of Hartlepool returning a Tory MP, a retired teacher on the high street replies: ‘It wouldn’t surprise me. Let’s face it, the people in this town, they voted for a monkey as the mayor.’… He is referring to Stuart Drummond, the town’s football club’s mascot H’Angus the Monkey, elected as Hartlepool mayor in 2002. He proved so popular he was re-elected twice.”

Eccentric though this may have been, it was a reaction to how much Labour in local government in the North East had become part of a self-serving Establishment.

More fundamentally, Hartlepool has some very specific demographics. It has the highest unemployment rate in England. The town is consistently ranked as one of the most deprived areas in Britain. One third of its children live in poverty.

The industries that were closed in the Thatcher years have been replaced by low-paid service sector jobs. Typically they are precarious – zero hours contracts and pay too low for a family to live on, let alone get a mortgage.

So young people are leaving. Older voters, often homeowners make up a large part of the electorate. The young-old divide in recent elections has proved to be an increasingly important feature separating Labour from Tory voters.

Investment and jobs that can stop the exodus from the town became important electoral issues. Pragmatically, this persuaded many voters to support the Tories, as the party in power, with the capacity to deliver tangible benefits to the area.

The operation of this US-style “pork barrel politics” by the Tories seems to be part of a more general tolerance, if not enabling, of corruption, where decisions are made not on a basis of merit, but according to who you know.  Hartlepool’s Labour candidate, Paul Williams, described this approach as a “protection racket”.

Speaking of whom, no account of the reasons as to why Labour lost Hartlepool would be complete without commenting on the candidate. Paul Williams was a flawed choice. He was a fervent Remainer campaigning in a strongly Leave seat. Members were appalled and voters disconcerted after an historic tweet emerged in which he used the word “Milf”, a derogatory term about women.

He was rebuked by Keir Starmer for having accepted the gift of a trip to Saudi Arabia worth £8,762 from the country’s government, after which he praised the country as “modern, progressive”.

The selection process itself was widely seen as a stitch-up after Williams was chosen from a longlist of one. But this is where local factors become inseparable from the national picture: this was a process and an outcome that Keir Starmer wanted. As one commentator noted at the time, “it carries a high degree of risk for the party leadership…..you can see how Keir Starmer may come to regret a situation where he cannot easily disavow the candidate in Hartlepool should the election not go his way.”

But clearly there is more to this historic defeat than local factors. But if national factors were involved, what were they? Peter Mandelson suggested they were “Covid and Corbyn”.

By Covid, we can understand the success of the vaccine roll-out – which is really a tribute to the NHS – and the tendency of people to rally to the government during a national crisis. Ahead of the elections, Labour List reported, “Sources close to the Labour leadership are briefing that the vaccine bounce is real and incumbency (in terms of government) is going to pay off at the ballot box. They also reason that ‘this is a pandemic election’ – a line used by Anas Sarwar in Scotland – and therefore no long-term trends can be deduced from the results, which are not expected to be all that good for Labour.”

The problem with this view is that it is Labour’s dereliction of duty as the official Opposition that allowed Covid and its consequences to be presented as an inescapable objective crisis that could not have been handled differently. In contrast with the last months of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Starmer’s team repeatedly missed opportunities to challenge the Johnson government’s chaotic, callous and corrupt handling of the pandemic. This included the original, brutal commitment to herd immunity, the failure to protect care homes, the failure to provide PPE, the corruption in the allocation of contracts to the private sector, the failure to accept union and local authority advice on schools, the delays in the second lockdown – all of which have given the UK one of the highest fatality rates for the virus in the western world. The death toll of over 150,000 should not be a cause for Conservative electoral advantage if the Opposition were doing its job properly.

“Corbyn” was the second reason Mandelson gave for the loss of Hartlepool. In one sense, he was right: Labour retained the seat in 2017 and 2019 under Corbyn’s leadership and if he were still leader today, the enthusiasm that he generated among campaigners, willing to travel the length of the country to knock on doors and persuade voters (remember the Stoke by-election in 2017?), might have made a difference.

But of course, that wasn’t what Mandelson meant at all. And this is where the real contest over narrative will take place. Was the Hartlepool debacle the result of Starmer’s insipid leadership or an ongoing part of the Corbyn legacy that saw Labour go down to an historic defeat in 2019?

Even before the election, the right had their lines of attack ready, enphasising the ‘damage’ Jeremy Corbyn had done to the Party and echoing Starmer’s line that Labour still has a “mountain to climb”. Starmer himself emphasised this would take a long time.

The problem with this analysis is that it overlooks the rather important fact that Labour won Hartlepool twice under Corbyn’s leadership. Novara Media’s Ash Sarkar noted, “Labour’s vote has declined in Hartlepool in every election bar 2017 since 1997.” Clearly, long term trends are a bigger factor here than who led the Party over the last six years.

Reports from the ground also suggested Corbyn was not the issue. Sienna Rodgers noted: “The overwhelming feeling I got from the residents was a sense of deep cynicism towards all politicians – one that Boris Johnson is benefiting from. Nobody I spoke to was bothered by Tory sleaze because they reasoned that such behaviour could come from any party.” On Keir Starmer: “The Hartlepool voters I met either didn’t know who he was or expressed disappointment.”

A Survation opinion poll ahead of the election found that only 31% of respondents felt favourably toward Labour, and only 22% had a favourable view of Keir Starmer, indicating that the leader was more unpopular than the Party. Why was this?

Diane Abbott tweeted: “Keir Starmer must think again about his strategy.” Momentum said: “Starmer’s strategy of isolating the left and replacing meaningful policy with empty buzzwords has comprehensively failed.”

It’s questionable, however, whether Starmer even has a strategy. His promise to build on the ground-breaking manifesto of 2017 is long-forgotten. Far from unifying the Party and ending factionalism, he appointed a General Secretary who has waged war on the left, suspending local parties and scores of individuals. Above all, the decision to remove the parliamentary whip from Jeremy Corbyn has polarised and demoralised members and caused Labour’s poll ratings, and Starmer’s own, to plummet.

Yet all this has been accompanied by a deep-rooted complacency and sense of entitlement. One comment on Twitter ran: “Whatever they’ll tell you now, Labour certainly selected their candidate in Hartlepool like they thought they were defending a safe seat.”

Phil Burton-Cartledge was more scathing: “The entitlement doesn’t end there. Despite being abused and defamed as antisemites, called cultists, having their say in the party stifled, and their efforts systematically undermined in 2017 and again in 2019, the left are being told to shut up and get on with campaigning. The party doesn’t want their views, but will take their money and their time. And their existence as handy scapegoats when things go belly up.”

And that’s just the members. The long-term practice of taking seats like Hartlepool for granted, because voters supposedly had nowhere else to go, has been reaping a bitter harvest since the start of this century.

Worse, in policy terms, there is a complete absence of vision, from both Starmer and those demanding a turn to the right. One commentator tweeted a challenge to those hankering for a return to Blair era: “Where are your policies that are anywhere near as transformative as a national minimum wage; independent Bank of England, Sure Start or the New Deal for young people?”

Instead the leadership has opted for a naïve flirting with the flag. The Daily Telegraph reported that Paul Williams handed out St George’s cross flyers to voters to put in their windows during the campaign.

In the face of the most nationalistic Conservative government seen in recent times, does anybody seriously believe that Labour can – or even should – compete in this game of false patriotism? Paul Mason observed: “Blue Labour-lite does not beat the full-throated xenophobia and targeted back-handers on offer from the Tories.”

Talk radio host James O’Brien, referring to the tensions over fishing rights in the Channel Islands, tweeted: “Deploying actual ‘gunboats’ on the day of an election was a stroke of Machiavellian genius. Starmer has the air of a man who turned up for a knife fight with a pair of moth-eaten boxing gloves.”

Nor, Paul Mason argues, can Labour assume that while it plays with these symbols, its progressive urban, younger voters will necessarily stick with the Party. “The current politics of the Labour front bench,” he concludes, “are a massive turn-off for that part of the UK population, which – though a significant part of the working-age electorate – has been stigmatised as woke, irrelevant and unpatriotic.”

A truly unifying strategy would find a bridge between Labour’s growing number of metropolitan supporters and the old Labour heartlands outside the cities, focused on economic recovery, green jobs and properly funded public services. It’s not rocket science: it was the basis of Corbyn’s 2017 appeal, before the division over Brexit derailed the strategy.

It will require building a coalition of supporters to rival the Tories, not emulate them. The likely landslide by which Manchester mayor Andy Burnham will get re-elected shows what is possible. It also underlines that a return to the politics of Tony Blair is not remotely feasible in a country transformed by urgent needs – in relation to housing, the environment, the economy, health and much more – that the Tories are incapable of addressing.

But none of this will be possible without ending the right wing’s attacks on Party members and bringing Jeremy Corbyn back into the Party to make full use of his unsurpassed campaigning abilities and ability to relate to Labour voters of all kinds. Whether Keir Starmer has the ability or desire to make these changes looks doubtful, but without them, do not expect an improvement in Labour’s electoral fortunes any time soon  – in the ‘red wall’ or anywhere else.

Mike Phipps is editor of the Iraq Occupation Focus e-newsletter, available at https://lists.riseup.net/www/info/iraqfocusHis book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018.

Image: Keir Starmer speaking at the 2020 Labour Party leadership election hustings in Bristol on the morning of Saturday 1 February 2020, in the Ashton Gate Stadium Lansdown Stand; Author: Rwendland; licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

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