The Guardian view on Boris Johnson’s win: Brexit is remaking politics

·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images

One can read too much into the Conservative party’s astounding victory at the byelection in Hartlepool, a deprived port town seat in north-east England. But it is rare that a government wins such contests, especially when it has been in power for 11 years and when the seat had been the opposition’s for decades. Now the town with the highest unemployment rate in the country has a Tory MP. This makes for a significant moment. The result represents the first fruits of Boris Johnson’s political strategy, which rests on consolidating the 2016 leave vote and using the state to direct cash and jobs to the parts of “rust belt” England that voted overwhelmingly for Brexit.

Labour might argue that “Super Thursday” was about much more than a single constituency. Elsewhere, devolved and local governments were being chosen. Yet in Scotland, Labour is being steamrolled by the nationalists. The party is clinging on in Wales. But to win power it needs to be competitive in England. At the time of writing, English local government elections seem to point to a revival in voting for the Greens and Liberal Democrats, eating into Labour’s support. This spells real trouble for Sir Keir Starmer, who could be caught in a pincer movement, losing votes on the left and the right. There are about 20 or so “safe” Labour seats, including those of Ed Miliband and Yvette Cooper, where the combined 2019 Brexit and Tory party vote would easily overtake the sitting MP.

The answer in the short-term must be for Labour to change course rather than make the captain walk the plank. Sir Keir has only been in his post for a year. But he won’t take responsibility for the terrible performance by sacking a few frontbenchers. It would be a mistake to “double down” on a vacuous strategy that has not worked. Labour requires an economic programme big enough to cut through and offer hope. Sir Keir should jettison policies that appear to judge the voters he courts. He needs a new vocabulary to persuade the traditional working class that Labour stands for their interests and understands their concerns. Without it he cannot hope to build a broad enough electoral coalition to win power.

Benjamin Disraeli, it was said, saw the Conservative voter in the working man just as the sculptor sees “the angel imprisoned in a block of marble”. Disraeli’s strategy took time to pay off, but it did so handsomely when millions of working-class Britons cast their votes for the Tories in 19th-century Britain. Mr Johnson is shaping up to be Disraeli’s political heir. Like the predecessor, Mr Johnson is seen as witty but unprincipled. He could not decide if he is pro-greed or against inequality. He slipped between backing capitalism and telling it where to go.

This woeful lack of consistency is being resolved slowly by Brexit. Mr Johnson has been forced to discover and explain what he stands for. The public are giving him the benefit of the doubt for the moment. Sir Keir has moved from leading the remain faction in the Labour party to voting for Mr Johnson’s Brexit deal. Yet he is still unable to say how he would make Britain’s exit from the EU a success. Until Sir Keir can do so, it is difficult to see how he will form a government anytime soon.

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