Last week’s by-election in Hartlepool, a Northern constituency in county Durham – and until recently the epitome of Labour’s ‘red wall’ seats – resulted in a Tory landslide: with Jill Mortimer, the Conservative candidate, gaining 51.9 per cent of the vote against Labour’s 28.7 per cent. Only two years ago, in the 2019 general election, one Tory strategist remarked that the seat was “just too far out of our reach”. As a litmus test for Keir Starmer’s impact on the Labour Party, the result is far from promising. In an interview, he admitted that Labour had “lost the trust of the working people” and that he “was bitterly disappointed” by the by-election result. He claimed to take full responsibility – although, in reality, he seemed to have tried to scapegoat Angela Rayner, the deputy leader, resulting in a vehement backlash.
Starmer’s cerebral character has always been grounded in competence rather than ideological vision, but last week’s result raises questions about whether mere competence is really enough. The fact is that the 2019 election – in which the Conservatives crashed through the ‘red wall’ gaining a net of 48 seats in England, whilst Labour lost 47 (approximately 20% of its so-called ‘safe seats’) – seems to be no longer an anomaly. Back then, it may have been a fathomable defeat if one considered Brexit as the pivotal factor which would temporarily make red seats turn blue. However, last week’s result indicates that there are perhaps more existential questions to be asked about the inherent issues which Labour faces.
The combination of a successful vaccine turnout, cultural conservatism, high spending, patriotism, and supposedly radical plans for ‘levelling up’ the Conservatives seem to have pushed Labour’s possibilities for a meaningful political stance back against the wall. Meanwhile, Labour seem to be trying to serve a working class which is arguably no longer what it was. Hilton Dawson, a local Hartlepool resident and ex-Labour MP for Lancaster, lugubriously remarked that “Labour in the north-east is just crushingly self-interested and self-concerned and driven by its own agendas rather than listening to the people”. Sombre assessments of Labour’s situation such as these allude to the fact that Labour has managed to lose its core; or rather, has failed to decide what it wants its core to be. Ultimately, Starmer cannot win an election off the back of university-educated, young urbanites. Legalistic meticulousness can only get Starmer so far, but at some point he must set out a holistic vision for the party which goes beyond simply distancing himself from Corbynites and attempting to prove his competency over Boris Johnson.
But is it really all over for Labour? Not necessarily. There is another potentially more optimistic lens through which we can view the Conservative’s most recent bite into the Labour heartlands: that this is Boris’s hiatus, not the inevitable status quo of politics. Think about it this way: could Boris simply be riding the wave of successful vaccination turnouts, high spending, a house price boom, and promises of ‘levelling-up’ which have not yet come into fruition? If this is the case, then perhaps once the pandemic is over (if that phrase itself is not an oxymoron) that very wave may soon crash down into mere ripples of disappointing political reality. Cynically, the pandemic has in many ways been a useful political tool for Johnson: a distraction from the internal dysfunctionality of his government, a chance for high-spending which is always popular, and a means of propagating patriotism and the sort of Churchill-esc cultural sentiment which makes Boris tick.
But, beyond the seemingly inevitable fog of the pandemic, Boris’s own horizons may be more politically challenging. If and when austerity kicks in, the flaws of Brexit rise to the surface, and the prospect of Scottish independence comes back to haunt a second Tory Prime Minister, could we see a reversal of fortunes? Add to this that Boris will actually have to live up to his promises, including ‘levelling up’ and on social care and post-Covid education plans. Then sprinkle the toxically elitist aftertaste of flat refurbishments and glib remarks like ‘let the bodies pile high’ – together with an inexorable investigation into the government’s early handling of the crisis – and the Conservatives’ near-future no longer seems to be plain-sailing.
Does Starmer need to set out his own vision rather than merely responding to his political landscape? Undoubtedly. However, it is also worth remembering that we may look back and consider this the peak of Boris, not the validation of his exponential surge.
Image credits: Middle East Monitor