“The people have spoken and have made it clear it is time for change.”
That a Conservative candidate can win a by-election victory by an enormous margin and, after 11 years of Conservative government, look down the barrel of the news cameras and say these words is, above all else, a remarkable testament to the times in which we live.
Journalists have traipsed in, out and around Hartlepool for a week or so, and concluded that the people have had enough of neglect and decline and are going to give the Tories a whirl. And now they have, in epic numbers.
It makes a brutal kind of sense. A defeat on this kind of scale – to lose a seat that you’d held for 50 years to a Conservative candidate getting more than 50 per cent of the vote – is remarkable. There will, naturally, be a lot of internal finger-pointing within a party that normal people might think is no longer capable of doing anything else, that’s if they are even paying attention at all.
But there’s no reason to believe the reason for this sort of defeat is this reason or that reason. Every so often, in Labour’s forever war, absolutely everyone can be right about how bad the party is, and that at least might be something to unite around. It’s all of the reasons, piled miles high, one atop the other, so there’s absolutely no harm in listing them.
Ten years ago, as explained after the event by Nick Clegg in his memoir, David Cameron and George Osborne made a deliberate, strategic decision to impose the most savage cuts on the poorest areas. The poorest councils received the biggest cuts. The thinking was that there was, electorally speaking, nothing to lose by piling up all the available misery on people who would never vote Conservative anyway.
That, I have written many times over, is evidence of a politics that is completely broken.
And now, well, a new dawn has broken, has it not? Is it, possibly, more broken than ever before? The people of Hartlepool, like the people of almost everywhere else 18 months ago, have worked out that there might be more in it for them if they vote for the winners, not the losers. They have voted Tory so that the pain might stop. It’s time for change. Please. Please. Alright. I give up. It’s time for change. I can’t take any more.
It’s a startling analysis, and it’s not quite true either. There has been a bit of levelling up already. There is the promise of more, and there will have to be more. Boris Johnson, in other words, will have to keep his word. That is not always how things come to pass, in the end, and therein lies Labour’s only hope.
And then there’s Covid-19. For most of the past year, people already not predisposed towards Boris Johnson have failed to understand why there has not been more anger about one of the largest per capita death tolls in the world, the constant repeating of mistakes over lockdown, and the largest economic hit in the G7. Said people are concluding, now, that the success of the vaccine rollout has forgiven all previous sins. Labour’s anti-Keir faction is already blaming this lack of anger on him personally.
Perhaps, in this endless by-election drumroll, precious little has been said about the millions upon millions of people who have spent the past year having their wages directly paid by the government. Journalists who parachute into by-election towns have an incredible knack of talking to waiters. Said people haven’t been shy of pointing out that, through no fault of their own, they’ve spent most of the past year being paid not to work and if it wasn’t for the government, they don’t know what they would have done.
Yes, 150,000 people have died, at an average of 10 years before their time, and lots of those deaths were eminently preventable. That is an appalling number, but it is also somewhat smaller than the 11.4 million people who, as of March 2021, were in furloughed jobs.
That is a remarkably high number of people who have, in no uncertain terms, been saved from complete destitution, and who are quite grateful to the government for it.
Then there’s Brexit. People who voted for Brexit have spent several years being told how stupid they were to do so, a sentiment I cannot pretend to disagree with. But thanks to the horror show of the EU’s vaccination programme, Brexiteers, who are for the most part elderly, and so have been vaccinated, really can, with some justification, associate their vaccine with their wise decision to vote to leave the EU. They have been jabbed with pure Brexit. Brexit has saved their lives.
These things have, of course, turbocharged change that was happening anyway. As has already been stated countless times, Labour is now the party of young metropolitan graduates who like the idea of being aligned with working-class people, and try not to think too hard that said working-class people are nothing like them – not least as said working-class people probably own their own home and the graduates don’t.
Labour’s so-called heartlands, its core voters, have always been ferociously socially right wing, especially on immigration. And whoever’s in charge, whichever bit of the party is driving the bus, it can only go to one destination, and a load of its passengers have seen where they’re going and are jumping off long before they get there.
The Hartlepool result means that none of Tony Blair, Gordon Brown or Peter Mandelson’s old constituencies are Labour anymore. That is almost mesmerisingly awful.
Labour has got many grim nights ahead, and while they might not become much less grim, their grimness is likely to become less complex. Covid and Brexit may have accelerated change but they are about to fall away like the fuel tanks on a space rocket, leaving behind, after a very long absence, what might be a more normal politics. Two parties at least outwardly committed to making things a bit fairer.
Between now and 2024, at a bare minimum, Labour has to show it is more serious about levelling up than the government is. The task will be immensely difficult, but it will at least be simple. Well, simple if you don’t think too hard about the Scotland question, but more on that tomorrow, one suspects.