After humiliation in Hartlepool, where now for smalltown detective DI Starmer?

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

The Labour party is now mainly an argument about which wing of itself was worse. Come on, guys – you’ve got so much in common! Let’s face it, you both tank elections. The Tories promise frequent bin collections, Labour promises frequent binfires.

The Conservatives have won Hartlepool, a seat Labour held since its creation in 1974, with a candidate so invisible she might have been an urban myth. Impressively, Labour’s remainer candidate was an even more batshit choice. We will of course have to wait whole days to discover all the various stripes of local results, not least what’s happened to Labour seats on Hartlepool council. If you’re not sure how many weeks/hours/seconds of postmortem on it all you can stand, remember: you can always run off and join up for the war against France. I guess the key questions I’ll be asking before I head for the front are: do you have to quarantine on return? And please tell me there’s indoor seating?

But whichever way the other key races go, on the Hartlepool result alone the Tories have once again manoeuvred Labour into the wounded post-election realm of abstract nouns. We’ll no doubt be hearing a lot more two-way anguish about things such as “belonging”, “identity”, “home”, “patriotism” and “heart”. All of this sounds like stuff that the moderator would write on a whiteboard at some insufferable office awayday. The Tories have once again caught Labour with the Offsite Trap. Any minute now some terrible prick is going to say “retail offering”.

Increasingly, Labour’s stated mission to rekindle with its lost heartlands feels a bit maudlin and entitled. It’s got the flavour of one of those stories where a man sets up a piano beneath his ex-girlfriend’s window and vows to play it until she gets back with him. Journalists who don’t really get it cover the story with headlines like “The last romantic”. All normal women who read it are just thinking: I know exactly what kind of guy he is. I hope she and her new boyfriend will eventually be able to relax in witness protection.

In Hartlepool, anyway, the media pack will soon sweep out of town, like arena rock acts bidding farewell to Boston with the words: “You’re welcome, Philadelphia!” On the plus side, at least that means we’ve got a few weeks off from the excruciating spectacle of people being vox-popped to see if they have ever heard of someone called Keir Starmer. I don’t know why the field producers don’t just go the whole hog and get Attenborough to voice the reports. “And here … approaching the watering hole … is a local female. Unaware of the wounded Starmer, her instincts centre on the big shop she needs to do later. Nature is vast – and indifferent.”

Anyway: Starmer. Let’s hope last week’s attempt to graft a sense of humour on to him in the wallpaper department of John Lewis was successful, because he’s going to need a laugh. To my eyes, the procedure was a botched lawyer-o-plasty. On the eve of polling, the Labour leader was out there telling the cameras: “We are fighting for every vote going into those elections tomorrow!” Life comes at you fast. You’ll note that a leader’s office that last week briefed that Boris Johnson’s dispatch box performance was the PM’s “Kevin Keegan moment” was by this week still fighting for this title. It is now Starmer who’s going to have to go to the Tees Valley and get something.

Speaking of the dispatch box, perhaps we could now hear much, much less about people’s perception that Starmer “performs well at PMQs”. This is the equivalent of saying he performs well in his secret diary, or in a mid-afternoon repeat of mid-00s horticultural detective series Rosemary and Thyme. To be clear: NO ONE WATCHES THIS SHOW. If it was shown on a US network, at least two New York executives would lose their jobs, and it would be pulled before the first commercial break, with affiliates switching to a 90s sitcom just to recoup seven minutes of ratings apocalypse and head off the threat of armed insurrection from their advertisers.

As someone who has probably watched PMQs twice in the past year, I’m afraid Starmer always has the look of a person who’s weary of having to explain something to you twice. He has slightly frightened eyes (like Peter Lilley used to – I know he likes references to early-90s British politics). Most still photos seem to show him giving a thousand-millimetre stare.

Wherever he campaigned during this local elections run, he looked like the classic smalltown detective battling his demons, who’s been transferred there from somewhere else in circumstances he doesn’t like to talk about. I quite like Angela Rayner as his earthy, big-hearted local DS, but she doesn’t seem to get any screentime. You get the feeling that DI Starmer is still haunted by the case of a drowned socialite he failed to solve 15 years ago. Boris Johnson, meanwhile, was shagging the socialite and probably accidentally drove the car off a pier then left her to die. And at some level, an aspirational public respects the work.

I’m trying to imagine the writers’ meeting at which the concept of Starmer was pitched. “Can you give me a character note?” “Er … He sometimes carries his suit jacket over his shoulder? He prefers to keep his counsel on the big issues, but looks like he would have an opinion on what makes ‘good’ coffee. He seems weary, like it’s a huge effort to tolerate the world.” I am now picturing general incredulity. “But … he gets the job done. Right? RIGHT? I mean, the thing about that character is that he has to get the job done?”

We now know his job hasn’t got done in Hartlepool. So the rest of the plot may be tactfully regarded as “developing”.

  • Marina Hyde is a Guardian columnist

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