A year since Keir Starmer’s election as Labour leader, the party is preparing to face its first test at the ballot box.
The contours of May’s local contests reflect the fallout of a miserable decade for the party. Labour’s position in many former industrial strongholds is uncertain, and the Hartlepool by-election is being held up as a litmus test for whether there has been sufficient progress.
Hartlepool is one of the most working class constituencies in England and Wales. It overwhelmingly voted to leave the EU in 2016, with 70% of its voters wanting out. But the seat has been drifting away from Labour for a long time – in 2005 Labour outperformed its national vote share in Hartlepool by 16 percentage points, by 2019 that figure was just three.
The point here is that, in a period of long-term Labour weakness, the party’s been doing worse relative to its national performance in places like Hartlepool, while there are corresponding seats where it has been getting stronger. A Labour victory in Hartlepool will therefore be a better result than would be suggested by simply retaining a long-held seat; it will bode well for countless other places where the party needs to reverse long-term drift and reclaim ground.
The party’s problem is not that it has lost touch with ‘left behind’ voters in places with symbolic ties to Labour. It is that it must rebuild a connection with millions of people and hundreds of places in the middle.
A win in Hartlepool will be good news for Labour for another reason too. That’s because, so far the town has been less badly affected by the pandemic than many other places. Over the last 40 years the constituency has faced more than its share of economic troubles. But it has weathered Covid-19 relatively well, with a smaller than average share of the population becoming furloughed or unemployed.
Many seats Labour needs to win at the next election – expected in 2023 – are similar. Most marginal seats that will determine the next election are in towns and small cities that got through the first year of the crisis better than big urban areas. If Labour can do well in these sorts of places in mid-term elections it could suggest a broader political recovery.
But most of the seats Labour needs to win back are only like Hartlepool in not being in big cities. When you look at the 150 constituencies the party will need to target at the next election, their centre of gravity lies in middle Britain. They are neither rich nor poor, young nor old, strongly for remain or leave. And they’re found in every corner of the country, with the lost 2019 ‘red wall’ seats making up under a third of their number.
The party’s problem is not that it has lost touch with ‘left behind’ voters in places with symbolic ties to Labour. It is that it must rebuild a connection with millions of people and hundreds of places in the middle: neither suffering nor prospering, liberal nor reactionary. The party must win a hearing from people who barely think about politics and vote based on a politician’s character and ability to connect. Just as they will in Hartlepool.
It would be a mistake for Labour to focus too heavily on Brexit results. Leave voters in the ‘red wall’ seats are looking for security and opportunity for their families.
To make progress across the country Labour must do more to prove that the Conservatives are manifestly unfit for office. In the 1990s the party prospered by highlighting how the Tories were tired, sleazy and a menace to the public realm. In recent weeks, shadow ministers like Rachel Reeves have seized upon dodgy Covid contracts and David Cameron’s chummy lobbying to attack government cronyism.
Labour will prosper if people across the country go into the next general election asking themselves whether Conservative politicians are governing in the nation’s interests or their own – and seeing in Keir Starmer a potential prime minister who represents the competence and probity the Tories lack.
The seats that Labour needs to win when a Westminster election comes are very different from each other. But they will all respond to a party that is in tune with the country and is looking to the future, not the past. For that reason it would be a mistake for Labour to focus too heavily on Brexit results. Leave voters in the ‘red wall’ seats are looking for security and opportunity for their families, just like people who voted remain. Voters in every corner of the country will respond when Labour has a convincing formula that responds to those concerns.
Labour must demonstrate it is as a truly national, big tent political force, staking out ambitious positions which chime with the common sense of middle Britain. The voters of Hartlepool are capable of seeing through the shape-shifting Tories who say whatever they think people want to hear. Now Labour needs to offer its alternative. It won’t be easy, but Labour’s destiny is in its own hands.
Andrew Harrop is general secretary of the Fabian Society