“Elections are won in years, not weeks”. That was the message that newly-elected Labour leader Neil Kinnock handed down to his party’s dazed and disconsolate foot soldiers four months after it had suffered annihilation at the hands of Margaret Thatcher back in 1983. Then, as now, Labour had haemorrhaged support among its base and faced a long road back to electoral credibility.
Kinnock’s words were true, of course. The trust of the electorate is secured not by gimmickry, soundbite or hoping the other lot mess up, but ultimately through the demonstration of competence and the methodical process of crafting a cogent policy programme that appeals to sufficient numbers of voters.
So I’m not convinced that the forthcoming by-election in Hartlepool will be quite the litmus test for Labour that some are suggesting. It is, let us not forget, only a little over a year since the party suffered its worst general election defeat since the 1930s. Hammered in many of its heartlands and abandoned by huge swathes of once-loyal voters, the task of reconstruction was always going to be slow and painstaking. And potentially more than three years out from the next election, the result in Hartlepool, whatever it be, is unlikely to alter the broader electoral landscape in any profound way.
But modern politics has little time for such nuance. Whether the party likes it or not, the by-election will be seen as an interim assessment of Sir Keir Starmer — both the man and his leadership. And while Hartlepool may not prove pivotal to the party’s longer-term electoral prospects, it is undeniable that the “direction of travel” is important. Labour must be able to demonstrate that progress is at least being made in the job of reconnecting with its core vote, that it understands it cannot be an organisation only for student radicals, social activists and middle-class liberals living in our fashionable cities, but must also be seen by those in working-class, post-industrial Britain as their natural home. If that is the mountain to be climbed — and it surely is — then the party is barely beyond the foothills.
A by-election in a Red Wall constituency such as Hartlepool at a time when the Tories are in government would once have been a walk in the park for the Labour Party. Since its creation in 1974, the seat has returned a Labour MP at every general election. But now things are far less certain.
Last time out, Labour held on — but with a much-reduced share of the vote. Unsurprisingly, given that the place voted heavily in favour of leaving the EU, Brexit Party heavyweight Richard Tice swept up support from over a quarter of the electorate, eating into the vote of both Labour and the Tories. Tice has hinted that he may stand in the by-election under the banner of the Brexit Party’s new incarnation, Reform UK — though, with the flames of the whole Brexit debate somewhat dampened, it is doubtful he will secure the same level of backing this time round. How those Brexit Party votes from 2019 are divided may therefore prove decisive.
The ideal candidate for Labour would have been a local person who, while imbued with Labour values and passionate about challenging economic and social inequality, understood working-class Britain and spoke its language, voted to leave the EU, perhaps — God forbid — had a job in the private sector and knew what it was like to take a shower after work rather than before, didn’t obsess about trans rights and wasn’t ashamed of the national flag. Finding such a person would have been something of a fool’s errand, mind. Those matching these criteria are these days in short supply within the party’s ranks — and that fact alone stands as testament to all that has gone wrong.
So Labour has plumped instead — following a process that some are calling a stitch-up — for what appears to be an identikit candidate: Dr Paul Williams, a Remain-voting, university-educated member of the professional and managerial classes who banged the drum very loudly for a second referendum and subscribes to a liberal-progressive worldview. And a budding retread MP to boot. The very opposite, in other words, to what is needed.
The problem for Labour is that it has stopped looking and sounding like a large chunk of those it was created to represent. A survey of the party membership carried out in 2017 found that 77% fell within the ABC1 grade (occupational middle-class), with nearly half of all members living in London or southern England. Fifty-seven per cent were graduates.
For all his creditable efforts to reconnect the party with its old base — accepting the Brexit war as over, and focusing his messaging on the value of family, community and nation — Sir Keir is shackled by a party that, in the main, doesn’t want to go where he is trying to take it. The mix of globalist liberal progressives and toytown revolutionaries that still holds so much sway in Labour’s ranks view any expression of patriotism or the politics of place and belonging as unenlightened and reactionary. Witness, for example, the slings and arrows some among these groups hurled at the leader for his terrible crime of having given some speeches in front of the union flag. On the continent, to give a speech in front of the national flag is, even for politicians of the Left, viewed as an entirely normal thing. To many on the British Left, it is a harbinger of the new fascism. And then they wonder why they lost the working-class.
With the acute impact of the economic crisis triggered by Covid beginning to be felt, and with the likelihood that the working class will, in the end, take the biggest hit, Labour should be Hoovering up the support of hard-pressed Britain. But from the Red Wall, the Labour Party still looks like that unappealing blend of 1960s hyper-liberal and far-Left ideologue that actively despises working-class values and culture. Those residing there continue to see an organisation dominated by middle-class activists preaching the gospels of cosmopolitan liberalism and social revolution. And the selection of Dr Williams as the by-election candidate in Hartlepool will not do much to disabuse them of that view.
Hartlepool is emblematic of blue-collar Britain. It should be safe territory for Labour. But instead the by-election could turn out to be a knife-edge battle against the Tories. The era when Labour could expect anyone wearing a red rosette to win in this type of working-class constituency is gone. Peter Mandelson was three times returned by the voters of Hartlepool. But that was in the days before the acute effects of globalisation – in the form of widespread deindustrialisation and intense demographic change – started to be felt in such places.
Mandelson and his New Labour chums were the cheerleaders for the new global market and all that came with it. They lectured provincial Britain about the benefits to be gained through improved GDP and cultural enrichment. But the people in these communities felt no better for it financially, culturally or spiritually. They yearned for something different – something that went beyond economic justice and was rooted in the concepts of place, stability and social solidarity. And when Labour showed itself unwilling to provide it, they began to look elsewhere.
To win back these places, Labour needs a radical overhaul. It must start focusing on the things that people want to talk about on the doorsteps in working-class communities — not only economic betterment, but law and order, immigration, national security and family.
I argue in Despised: Why the Modern Left Loathes the Working Class that, at its best, Labour is an electoral compromise between (coincidentally) Hartlepool and Hampstead – a coalition that fused the party’s traditional working-class base with a layer of more middle-class liberals who were attracted to its vision of a fairer society. But that coalition has become seriously unbalanced: Hampstead has come to dominate while Hartlepool has been sidelined and taken for granted.
This by-election presents an opportunity for Labour to demonstrate how serious it is about pushing the pendulum back the other way. I fear the party is nowhere near ready to seize it.