Two months ago, Keir Starmer reached a great milestone in his career as Labour leader, heroically guiding his party towards his first ever election. Which he lost. Quite badly. Since then, the Labour Party apparatchiki have scrambled to find new and exciting justifications as to why, having begun purging Corbynites and bringing back the mature, sensible leadership of the Blair days, they’ve actually started doing worse. Fortunately, they started getting the excuses in early – in fact, they started to get them in before the elections had even happened.
You might suggest that, for a new leader who got the job mainly due to perceived “electability”, conceding that you’re probably about to lose the only by-election on the day of the local elections, Hartlepool, is a really bad sign. Actually losing it: also a really bad sign. Especially given it was one of the Labour constituencies that stayed red throughout the 2019 election. And for the rest? Local elections saw a severe decline for Labour. The Tories surprised themselves with a good showing in London, despite no CCHQ funding. Last month, another by-election saw the Tory seat of Chesham and Amersham flip… to the Lib Dems, while Labour’s vote share fell from over 7,000, to 622. The Greens, for reference, got more than double that. A few days ago, the party barely held onto Batley and Spen, with its majority plummeting from over 3,500 to 323.
Chesham and Amersham is a rich constituency, so Labour’s loss is understandable – though, with Corbyn out and the Tory vote plummeting, it should have done better. Batley and Spen is a bit of an odd case, as it was a very narrow victory in which over 8,000 votes went to George Galloway and the Workers’ Party. The seat previously had about 6,000 socially conservative voters going to a different independent party; it seems Galloway picked them up, and perhaps squeezed new floating voters out of Labour. Still, Labour did win there.
But Hartlepool in particular stands out as an example of what respectable political analysts like myself refer to as a “bruh moment”. Since its formation in 1974, the constituency has been a solid Labour seat. Even in the turmoil of 2019, Labour won by several thousand votes. Granted, if you combine the Brexit Party and Tory votes for that election, they lose. But even then, they lose with a much higher vote share than Labour got this time round. And those are, definitionally, floating voters – the kind of Labour defectors who, as in Batley and Spen, clearly don’t like the Tories that much, and who Starmer traded heavily on being able to win back. Why couldn’t he?
There are many potential explanations, varying from “Tories are finally the party of the working class” (they aren’t – their main voting bloc are old homeowners, same as always) to “this was Corbyn’s fault” (or “would be”, since many Starmer fans used this prior to the election itself). One explanation came from a couple of Hartlepool voters, interviewed by the BBC’s Chris Mason, who complained Labour had failed them – that the town had no court, no jail, and had lost its A&E department. These are not things a single MP can fix. They are also all things that happened under a Conservative government. Online, this fact has been pointed out, with abundant contempt.
But does it matter? Take those two guys at face value. Assume they’re entirely in good faith and that they are representative of most ex-Labour voters in Hartlepool (not exactly scientific, I know, but all political analysis is just anecdotes backed with funny graphs, so it’ll do). What does it mean that people are angry at Labour because the Tories have failed them? There’s a tendency to mock these voters, as there was after Trump’s election. You can complain, smugly, of sheep voting for wolves. But they were your sheep, once. And now they’re with the wolves. That’s not a vote of confidence in your skills as a shepherd.
As shepherds – well, as opposition – Starmer and his team have had a clear strategy. Ignore left and right. When challenging the government – which should be done sparingly – do so on the basis of competence and honesty. Corbyn tried to attack every facet of the Conservative government’s ideology; Starmer has completely yielded to it. Fundamentally, what Starmerism says is “you want what the Tories do, and I can do that but better”. Understand this, and you understand why he abstains on human rights issues like the “spy cops” bill, while scolding Black Lives Matter but barely acknowledging “great replacement” conspiracy theorists ranting at him on LBC.
In some sense, it’s as if the Labour right have decided history is over. The big questions of economics are no longer relevant; politics is a competition to find the best, most effective leader. Like Blair, Starmer aims to achieve power by treating policy as a windvane – by finding the centre of what’s acceptable to voters, and then choosing policies based on that. It’s a fundamentally myopic view, whose flaw becomes apparent when you start to look outward. Say you win by abandoning your most left-wing causes – renationalisation, for example. It’s not like privatisation was a success, or people have come to like the privatised system. But without anyone advocating nationalised infrastructure, the idea slips out of public discourse, and reintroducing it becomes an almost absurd proposal. Tried-and-tested policies become revolutionary communism, not because of what they are, but because their advocates surrendered on them, letting their opponents – and a conveniently forgetful media ecosystem – decide how plausible they were.
I’ll close off by acknowledging that this strategy did work, at least for Blair. It worked, but it did so under different circumstances, and it won’t work this time. It worked against a Conservative government that had been in decline for years, and with a much more charismatic opposition that ran far more vicious attacks. It worked at the expense of setting in motion a long decline in the party’s trust among what should’ve been its core supporters. And it worked when Labour had more ground to cede. At this point, there’s no principles left to argue over, not even the basic “spend more on public services” line, with the Tories showing off bold new spending while Labour condemns corporation tax rises. Starmer’s one remaining pitch is that he can do the Conservatives’ job better than they themselves can.
And, if there’s anything both Starmer’s personal approval ratings and the election results have shown, nobody’s a better Tory than the Tories.