The day Hartlepool found somewhere else to go

By David Osland

Why bother appealing to working class voters, the former Labour MP for Hartlepool once hubristically declaimed to a cabinet colleague. After all, they’ve got nowhere else to go.

Karma was scarcely instant on this one, but decades later, it has knocked Lord Mandelson right on the head. He could profitably take time out from today’s media round for a few minutes of silent reflection on why the working class of Hartlepool finally did go somewhere else.

The most recent Index of Multiple Deprivation ranked the town as the 11th poorest place in England. For context, that makes it harder up than Hackney.

Steel jobs are on the line because of the machinations of David Cameron’s Greensill Capital.

If traditional psephological notions of working class voting behaviour held half as much water as the local marina, the Tories wouldn’t even have been in the running.

But yesterday the Conservatives took a seat that has been Labour since its inception by 7,000 votes, in what marked another day in the death of the Red Wall.

If ever there was a case study on how to screw up a crucial by-election, this is it. In a place where resentment to London diktat is a given and support for Brexit overwhelming, a ‘longlist of one’ comprising a candidate without even the nous the delete incriminating historic Tweets turned out to be a ropey judgment call.

It’s not self-evident that a democratically-chosen Lexit Labour candidate, emphasising the most popular 2019 policies, would have won. But the margin of defeat may not have been so brutal.

But it’s fatuous to get into games of factional yaboo sucks. The decline in Labour’s working-class support is structural and dates back decades. Analyses that focus largely on either Corbyn or Starmer are grossly facile.

There are also unmistakable parallels with what is happening to Labour’s sister parties elsewhere in Europe. Germany’s SPD just polled 13%, the lowest backing seen in its storied history, while its French and Greek equivalents can only dream of support like that.

Defeat on the scale of Hartlepool surely necessitates some decisive reorientation. Instead, the talk is of ‘accelerating the pace of change’, a euphemism for galloping shift to the right.

Some commentators have even wheeled out the damning charge that the people have forfeited the confidence of the Labour leadership, and can only win it back by redoubled efforts.

‘Voters have no excuse, with Keir Starmer and his frontbench a thoroughly electable, decent and honest alternative,’ wrote Polly Toynbee in the Guardian earlier in the week.

Unless those words were penned in ironic homage to Brecht, that half a sentence encapsulates the level of incomprehension and detachment we must deal with here.

Nor is change at the top any shortcut. The Financial Times reported on Thursday: “Another shadow minister warned of tensions ahead if Labour were to lose in Hartlepool and in the mayoral race for the West Midlands. ‘Unity won’t last long . . . if [Starmer] doesn’t buck his ideas up we will do worse at the next election.’”

That sounds like an awfully long-winded circumlocution for ‘leadership challenge’.

Labour doesn’t need to look in the crystal ball when Scotland is the book. Decades of dominance collapsed overnight in 2015.

Yet Scottish Labour remains in denial and is contenting itself with the superfluous function of a second string party of the union, even as the era of automatic allegiance definitively collapses.

Nor can Labour fall back on endless reiterations of the Tory sleaze charge sheet. The very expression means nothing to anyone under 40; anyone over 40 will remember New Labour sleaze, which emitted an equally pungent stench.

If this impasse is ever to be overcome, messaging has to go way beyond ‘vote Labour because we are not the Conservatives’.

Some 60% of the Hartlepool electorate didn’t vote. Labour urgently needs to give them a positive reason to get behind our party. And incredible as it will seem to some, the entirely worthy notion of British Recovery Bonds just doesn’t generate uncontrollable excitement on the doorstep.

Labour politics isn’t rocket science; jobs, housing, the NHS and education. Some of those words were even ritually incanted in the by-election campaign, but with zero degree of conviction and no details on how these were to be achieved.

Meanwhile, this much is clear. The ‘nowhere else to go’ school propagated by the town’s most notable former representative no longer stands up. Because working class voters do have somewhere else to go. And they’re ready to go there in increasing numbers.

David Osland is a member of Hackney North & Stoke Newington CLP and a long-time left wing journalist and author. Follow him on Twitter at @David__Osland

Image: Hartlepool Historic Quay. Source: Author: ianpudsey, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

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