The lesson from Hartlepool? People don’t believe we have yet changed enough

Jim McMahon

In previous general elections, as neighbouring seat after neighbouring seat fell to the Conservatives, Hartlepool stayed Labour. Yesterday, the people of Hartlepool made a different choice. The Labour Party must now change.

There’s no doubt this is a difficult pill for us to swallow, but anyone professing shock or claiming the result is a verdict on the last year either does not understand the country or is choosing not to. The idea that Hartlepool is a place where the Labour vote was weighed rather than counted is an offensive characterisation. This is a seat Labour has nearly lost in recent years to the Liberal Democrats and UKIP. People here deserve more respect than to be reduced to convenient caricatures.

I’ve spent six weeks living out of my suitcase, knocking doors, speaking to voters from morning until night. One of the first things that struck me was how the conversations have moved on from previous general elections. After a year of the pandemic, people are ready to talk, reflective about the country, focused on the future.

People agree that the Labour Party is changing. They feel things are getting better and that has given us the right to be heard. But they don’t believe we have yet changed enough for them to put their trust in us. There remains a sense – fairly or unfairly – that Labour has taken them for granted for too long.

For Labour to now descend into recriminations or endless arguments on social media between different factions of the party would only further emphasise the idea that this is a party obsessed by itself rather than the public. The simple fact of the matter is that for a party bearing the name of Labour to have let down working people is unthinkable. Rather than continuing the Westminster squabbling, we need to deal with the problems facing us.

As the party of working people, when voters see the community they care about decline, with decent jobs lost and work not paying fairly, they hold us to account. They want to know how Labour will be a clear voice for them, ensuring work pays and that those who play by the rules have the chance of a good life. They demand, rightly, that the next generation is able to do better.

The result in Hartlepool means we must press ahead and put the pedal to the floor on the programme of changing the party. We must continue with a relentless focus on the issues that matter to working people – jobs, health, crime, education, housing – not the hobbyhorses of a few loud voices.

We must tackle economic arguments head on. That means being the party of security at work and in communities, as well as fairness and opportunity across the country. Rather than hectoring or assuming we have a right to win, we must be the party that ensures young people have the best start in life and the best prospects, and older people have a retirement to look forward to.

And we must be the party that has pride in the places that working people live and the country they live in. The endless noise generated by social media and commentary must be put to one side: the voices of people across Britain must be tuned in and turned up.

There are some who say that we should give up on towns like Hartlepool and the other places we have lost over the country over the last decade. From the safety of echo chambers, talking in abstract theory, obsessing over personalities or inventing voter coalitions that don’t exist, their promises are the equivalent of those ‘one simple trick to lose weight!’ adverts you see on the internet. The truth is, there is no easy way out of this. There is no way for Labour to win without becoming a party that restores the faith of people in places like this.

We all feel the frustration that, despite stripping away the foundation of public services that keep us safe and cared for, overseeing a loss of skilled jobs, apprenticeships and the decline of town centres, the Tories have won a seat so hard fought for. Having starved places like Hartlepool of funding for over a decade, they now claim that if you vote for them, they will ride to the rescue. Their cynicism is hard to stomach. But Labour must be humble in defeat and learn.

To their enormous credit, despite all the challenges the pandemic has brought to normal politics, Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner have spent much of the last year speaking and listening to those who don’t already agree with us. Listening is only part of the solution though – the challenge, as the fog of the pandemic lifts, is to turn this into action. We can be inspired by the way Labour in power – the Welsh government and our metro mayors across the country – has made a difference to people’s lives, putting our values into action every day across Britain.

The challenge facing us all is to ensure that next time there is an election in Hartlepool – or any other place Labour needs to win to get into government – the conversations on the doorstep aren’t just friendly: that we can persuade people that this is once again a Labour Party for working people, one that puts their interests first and is fit to run their town, their city – and their country.

Jim McMahon was the political lead for the Hartlepool by-election.

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