Labour’s drubbing in the Hartlepool byelection was the most dramatic and symbolic of all the varied results from May’s elections. Party figures have eagerly repeated a familiar metaphor since those results: that Labour has a “mountain to climb”, citing its 2019 election losses as evidence of the scale of the challenges it faces. But the collapse of Labour’s vote share in the north-east of England last week can’t be explained by long-term factors alone. This was a campaign spearheaded by the leader’s office, to which Keir Starmer devoted much time and energy. The loss of Hartlepool, a seat that has voted Labour since its creation, was his failure.
The circumstances behind this extraordinary defeat tell us much about the party under Starmer. The Labour leadership seems to imagine “red wall” seats such as Hartlepool as dim hinterlands full of patriotic, socially conservative, working-class voters – the polar opposite of a caricatured “metropolitan elite”. According to this reading, the task of rebuilding support in these areas is a simple case of airlifting Saint George flags into town during election campaigns and repeating hollow, patronising cliches about “trust” and “competence”.
But people in the north-east are like people everywhere else: intelligent enough to want more than mere competence and diverse enough that they deserve to be treated with nuance. Neither were apparent in the “pints and flags” pitch that Labour made to the Hartlepool electorate. It’s certainly true that many northern voters – like many southern voters – are socially conservative (though many others are not). But focusing on ambiguous cultural matters like patriotism – the result of a policy offer derived from endless focus groups and attempts to speak to the voters – will only result in a strategy that seems a weak mirror-image of the status quo. When Johnson’s Tories are offering this anyway, and much more effectively, Labour looks pitiful and inauthentic.
After over a year in which Starmer has had the chance to develop a more proactive, dynamic strategy for winning back (or retaining) seats like Hartlepool, he has instead revived the messages that dominated Ed Miliband’s unsuccessful 2010-2015 tenure as Labour leader. Then, as now, Labour was engaged in a hapless, hopeless attempt to stem a decline in its traditional voter base – by flirting with the Blue Labour, “faith, flag and the family” approach recommended by the likes of Jon Cruddas and Chukka Umunna, for instance. This tendency suggested that Labour could reconnect with voters in its heartlands by acknowledging their “legitimate concerns” about immigration and posing as the party of law and order. Then, as now, voters simply bypassed Labour in favour of rightwing parties that were making these claims with greater conviction.
Perhaps not coincidentally, it was in these years and in this ideological climate that some of Starmer’s key allies, such as Rachel Reeves and Jenny Chapman, were rising steadily through the ranks of the parliamentary Labour party after arriving in Westminster in 2010. It is hard not to conclude that Starmerism – if such a thing can even be said to exist – is little more than a nostalgic revival of this lethargic pre-2015 period, when the Labour party was a top-down, managerial affair, with low membership figures and little in the way of policy ideas emerging from its grassroots.
Where the north is concerned, the party’s return to this elitist pre-2015 mode of operating has involved the repetition of tactics that failed to stop voters deserting the party in droves during the 2010s – an exodus pre-empted in the later New Labour years, when Peter Mandelson famously and erroneously claimed that Labour should not worry about voters in traditionally working-class areas because they had “nowhere else to go”. That Mandelson is now apparently a major presence in Starmer’s backroom team is both unfortunate and ironic.
Instead of reprising past failures, if Labour is to have any hope at all of making progress in places like the north-east, it will need an electoral offer that is assertive and original. At its root, this is a very basic question of realising that the country has moved on since the Miliband years (let alone the turn of the century, when Mandelson was a driving force in Tony Blair’s New Labour government).
Voters excited by nationalist imagery will probably now stick for ever with the more confidently patriotic posturing of Johnson’s Tories. But in the north, as throughout the rest of the country, there are younger demographics that Labour must learn to understand if it is to begin the task of electoral renewal and prevent further decline. Despite the anti-Corbyn rhetoric of party moderates, a starting point here has to be the sort of strategy adopted in the runup to the 2017 election, when Labour deprived the Conservatives of their parliamentary majority by focusing on bold, principled policies that were especially popular with younger voters.
There were manifold limitations to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, most obviously its final collapse in the 2019 general election. But in 2017 Labour retained Hartlepool with a huge 17-point increase in the vote share. This refutes the view that defeat in last week’s byelection was inevitable – and offers pretty clear evidence that novel, clearly articulated ideas are at the very least more successful than outdated, condescending attempts to shift rightwards on cultural issues.
Whichever way you look at it, the next few years are bound to be difficult for Labour as it seeks to rebuild a voter coalition from several sometimes diametrically opposed groups. But it must start crediting voters in places like the north-east with the ability to know when they are being talked down to, or when they are being treated with the respect that comes when a party offers a coherent political programme and asks that voters get behind it.
Confident, radical messages and policies will, over time, build support for Labour even in the suburbs and smaller towns of the north-east, where younger workers and families are already relocating in search of cheaper housing, while keeping the party’s support in big cities onside. It’s in this newer, 21st-century demographic that Labour must continue to put its trust, not an outdated and unimaginative vision of a north that no longer exists.
Alex Niven is a lecturer in English literature at Newcastle University and the author of New Model Island