8th May 2021
The town of Hartlepool has, up until now, mainly been famous for the story about the locals hanging a monkey during the Napoleonic wars, thinking it was a Frenchman. The tale has become symbolic of Hartlepool’s insularity and relative isolation on the North East coast.
The resounding by-election victory for the Tories this week did not come about because the people of Hartlepool thought local Labour candidate, Paul Williams, was a Frenchman, though his pro-EU views in a staunchly Brexit leaning town will not have helped. They are part of a long term decline in allegiance to Labour in its heartland areas, a tide briefly stemmed in the 2015 – 2017 period of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, but one which appears to be accelerating under Kier Starmer.
Ironically Starmer is largely the architect of his own downfall in this respect. When the political establishment took fright at Labour building a mass membership base from 2015 onwards, shattering Theresa May’s majority at the 2017 General Election, Starmer was quick to fall in behind the establishment view that the groundswell for change, which took Jeremy Corbyn as its figurehead, must be stopped.
Corbyn’s rapid rise had been built upon a recognition by many that the leadership of Labour had become politically synonymous with the Tories, offered little different by way of policy and even less difference for many in practice. As a long standing back bencher, often defiant of the leadership and trenchant in his views, Corbyn did offer a genuine alternative. The policies and programme which Corbyn and the team around him built reflected a genuine shift to the Left and the possibility of beginning to challenge some of the long held shibboleths of the political establishment.
Crucially, Labour under Corbyn was committed to honouring the outcome of the Brexit referendum, a position central to many in Labour’s working class base, who saw the EU much in the same way as they saw the respective Party leaderships, the privately educated classes booking the best seats on the gravy train.
By 2017 Labour was effectively being led by a Left wing populist committed to leaving the EU based upon the referendum outcome. The fact that the establishment had failed to manipulate the Brexit outcome in its favour was bad enough, leaving the EU was never really part of the plan. The prospect of Corbyn and his team being in charge of those negotiations was even more frightening. Something had to be done, so the campaign to vilify Corbyn, question his patriotism, accuse him of links with terrorists, ramp up the anti-Semitism smear campaign, shifted through the gears with remarkable speed.
Targeting what were clearly a set of popular policies for change was not going to cut it. Corbyn had to be attacked at his ethical base and to be subject to a barrage of character assassination. If it was not called Operation No Smoke Without Fire, it could have been.
Starmer joined the fray by becoming a leading light in the so-called People’s Vote campaign, seeking to overturn the referendum result, pushing Labour into an indefensible position by the time of the 2019 General Election and, along with the widespread vilification of Corbyn in the establishment press and inside sections of the Labour Party, effectively brought about the cataclysmic result in that election.
The Tories on the other hand had learned some different lessons. Seeking to ride the wave of popular desire for change, placing a demagogue with election success behind him in London Mayoral elections and as the figurehead of the Leave campaign, saw Boris Johnson’s rise to the leadership of the Tories.
Although a dyed in the wool Old Etonian and establishment figure, Johnson has enough nous to recognise that playing to the gallery is likely to garner as much support as forensically worked out policy positions. Being a journalist by trade and media personality by default Johnson is also adept at working a crowd and projecting persona as the key election issue. Like the fake ‘bloke down the pub’ populism that was the basis of stockbroker Nigel Farage’s appeal to sections of middle England, Johnson covers his privileged roots in talk of levelling up, praising the great people of the North East and looking forward to a pint when the pubs open.
Sidestepping the fact that his government has presided over thousands of unnecessary deaths from the COVID pandemic, Johnson points to the success of the vaccination programme and asks us to look towards a sunny future. He deludes the people of Hartlepool and elsewhere that his government is committed to a vague notion termed ‘levelling up’, when it will do no such thing. For Johnson that does not matter, if it wins him the next vote.
Meanwhile Starmer’s anonymity is resounding. He makes no policy impact, projects no personality, offers nothing but a return to the politics of business as usual, rejected as failed by Labour supporters since 2015 but beloved of the political establishment, as presenting no threat to the status quo.
To get a measure of the depth of the abyss into which Labour is staring it need to look no further than Scotland. The abandonment of the politics of supporting working class communities and challenging the Tories in Westminster has opened a fissure within which the mould of the Scottish National Party has been allowed to grow. The blind alley politics of leaving the UK only to join the EU has gathered momentum as the only feasible alternative to Tory diktat for many Scottish voters.
The SNP have only been able to gain so much ground because Labour has presented little in the way of an alternative for Scottish working class voters.
Following Labour’s defeat in Hartlepool the hapless Shadow Communities Secretary, Steve Reed, was fed to Radio Four’s Today programme to account for Labour’s defeat. Interviewer Nick Robinson’s Tory roots are well known but he barely had to break sweat to have Reed running in circles. His only answer to what Labour had to do to turn things round was to quicken the pace of change, a euphemism for continuing to purge the Left and pursue the failed policies of the Labour right wing of old.
Kier Starmer has subsequently said Labour needs to move its HQ from London to show that it will be a Party for all of the people. Really? Will that make a difference? Starmer has also said that Labour must listen to people and respond to their views. Up to a point. Labour needs to be in touch with its roots but as a political party cannot go forward being only committed to abdicating responsibility to the views of the moment, subject as they may be to change and manipulation.
Labour needs to set out a political programme based upon its assessment of the needs of the working class and then set out to argue the case for that programme. It needs to be more rooted in local communities and be seen as the natural ally of those in need at all times, not just when an election is around the corner.
Labour needs to recapture the territory it has surrendered since 2019 and project itself as the party of real change, the real alternative to sleaze, corruption and cronyism, the real option for the many, not the few. Starmer may move the HQ and reshuffle his front bench but that will not be enough.