How should Labour interpret and respond to its defeat in Hartlepool?

Sienna Rodgers
© Twitter/@Keir_Starmer
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Labour has lost Hartlepool in a historic defeat. Governments hardly ever win seats from opposition parties, and for this to be happening 11 years into a Tory administration is devastating – especially as their candidate Jill Mortimer won it with a majority of nearly 7,000, not by the small margins that had been estimated earlier. How will the leadership react? Before the result was announced, a Labour source said they knew the North East and the Midlands would be “difficult” this week and concluded that “Labour must now accelerate the programme of change in our party”. Peter Mandelson, the ex-MP for Hartlepool known to be advising the leader’s office, told the BBC that he blames the loss on “two Cs: Covid and Corbyn”. Official spokespeople aren’t as explicit, but essentially they share this analysis.

Supporters of Jeremy Corbyn point out that Labour won Hartlepool with 52.5% of the vote in 2017 (to which others may say, ‘but the Tories ran a terrible campaign that year’) and won it again in 2019 (to which allies of the current leadership definitely say, ‘but the Brexit Party split the vote and Labour would have lost without the help of Richard Tice’). The flaw in responding to the latest result by pointing out that the pro-Brexit vote was split last time is that we are being shown what will happen in this type of seat, which isn’t the only one of its kind, and that this reaction is not a justification but actually a description of the problem. The leadership has not been acting as if these areas are lost forever – in fact, it is Starmer’s mission to make progress in precisely these constituencies. Instead, Labour went backwards, dropping nine percentage points in vote share.

This was not a referendum on Keir Starmer: on my visit to Hartlepool last week, he was barely registering with the electorate. That is partly due to the pandemic, the fact that the Labour leader has struggled to attract attention whereas government ministers have become celebrities via televised briefings. But some would say it is also because Labour has been incredibly dull – other than fighting over Corbyn’s suspension, readmission and suspension again – for the last year. Where was the big message in this election? We were told that “a vote for Labour is a vote for our NHS”, but every time a frontbencher was asked about the policy in a media appearance it created a deeply awkward moment as they couldn’t put a figure on the pay rise being demanded. LabourList understands that deputy leader Angela Rayner wanted the message to be a real living wage for care workers, which could have been a clearer line.

There has also been a failure of political management. Why put all the Labour leadership’s eggs in the basket of Dr Paul Williams, when this was a risky seat that the party looked like it could lose? The longlist of one had the approval of the local party executive, yes, but it exposed Keir Starmer personally further to the risk, as The New Statesman has repeatedly highlighted. (Some have also said not giving a concession speech thanking volunteers this morning was unfortunate.) The other decision was moving the writ to ensure that the by-election was held at the same time as all of the other contests, including the Tees Valley mayoral race, in which the popular Tory incumbent Ben Houchen is standing. His likely victory will show the Tories were probably right to talk of the ‘Ben Houchen effect’. Did Labour not consider this factor, or was the concern considered but cast aside due to the party’s financial constraints? We will know more about to what extent this matters when we have all the results in from Hartlepool.

The infighting over how to interpret Hartlepool has begun. Lloyd Russell-Moyle and Richard Burgon have criticised the leadership’s strategy. Frontbench allies of Starmer, on the other hand, are making clear that they agree with what one source told me a couple of months ago: that the May results would be “a referendum on whether Keir Starmer is changing the Labour Party fast enough”. Steve Reed has made clear that Labour won’t be “going back to what took us to our historic defeat in 2019”, i.e. Corbynism.

The main explanation for this result is, of course, long-term trends (combined with a vaccine bounce and an unlocking for which everyone is grateful). The widely expected shadow cabinet reshuffle will not be enough to address the problems evidenced by Hartlepool. The party has serious issues to grapple with: rather than descend into petty infighting, it needs to do the hard graft of coming up with one big, easily communicated purpose that can convince people to vote Labour again.

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