There were plenty of warnings that Hartlepool would be a struggle if you cared to look for them. We scraped home with just over one third of the vote in two of the last three elections, we have been losing council seats there for some time and there were 10,000 plus Brexit Party voters who were looking for a new home. Our activists and candidate worked incredibly hard in the by election but six weeks of activity does not make up for six or 16 years of perceived neglect. The clip of the Hartlepool voter blaming Labour for a series of closures that happened under the Tories showed how we have not been at the races for a long time.
True, the anger had dissipated, but that was replaced by indifference. At the moment, many voters are prepared to believe the promises the Tories are making of a bright new future with investment and jobs in a post Brexit world. They have an offer moving forwards. I have no doubt those snake oil salesmen will eventually be found out, and the message all but confirmed by a Tory MP in a leaflet last week that this government will favour Tory councils is the sort of base politics that fills me with anger. But it can be an effective message until people see that those promises won’t deliver the real change they are craving.
We know many government departments are already being asked to make billions in savings even before the bill for covid starts to be paid back, so there will be pain ahead and a new bypass isn’t going to deliver better health, wealth and opportunities for most, despite what the glossy leaflets say. But we shouldn’t assume that will happen any time soon, nor should we assume that we will automatically be the beneficiaries. As we have seen in various parts of the country, other parties are available.
Across the country, we have suffered shattering defeats but the reality is that for years the country has been turning its back on us. It’s now eight years since we last had a sustained double digit poll lead, yet too much of our time is spent arguing amongst ourselves based on the performance under past leaders. This misses the point: it’s the future we need to address, not the past. Most of all we should be having these conversations with the public – they are the ones we need to win over.
There are mitigating factors in this election. We have not had politics as normal for 12 months and the traditional opportunities for the leader of the opposition to make their mark have been severely curtailed. What would most people think if we set out detailed policy positions for an election two or three years away in a pandemic? They would think we were completely out of touch and wouldn’t listen anyway.
However, as we move towards what is hopefully an end to the damaging cycle of lockdowns and reopenings (and there will be a day of reckoning for this government on their mistakes), now is the time to set out that clear agenda on job creation, job protection, investment in public services, strong devolution in the regions, the green industrial revolution and those core issues that people have always and still care about.
Incumbency in a crisis is an advantage, as our excellent results in Wales show, and there are patches of other good results around the country with the metro mayor successes showing a clear and localised message is still a winning formula, as we recommended in the Labour for the North report that I co-authored. Call it an emotional connection, call it engagement; most people’s priorities in the places we have lost are still the ones to which we should have the most compelling answers.
When the shine wears off this government, and people realise things haven’t got any better, they will look for alternatives. Last week’s results show there is no guarantee we will be that alternative: we will have to work, week by week and street by street, to rebuild that trust.