Kier Starmer and Boris Johnson
Illustration: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost; Photos: Getty
Kier Starmer and Boris Johnson
POLITICS
07/05/2021 10:10 BST | Updated 07/05/2021 10:46 BST

Six Reasons Why Labour Lost The Hartlepool By-Election

Huge triumph for Boris Johnson means Keir Starmer needs to change and change fast.

1. The vaccine bounce is real

The public’s number one priority is combatting Covid and they credit Boris Johnson for both the vaccine rollout and his newly cautious roadmap out of lockdown. Right at the start of the year, when the polls were neck and neck, Labour insiders predicted a “vaccine bounce” and that turned out to be an all-too candid prediction, rather than mere expectations management. The Conservatives won Hartlepool with a majority of 6,940.

Yes, the pandemic has meant Johnson and other ministers have dominated the airwaves. Yes, Keir Starmer has been denied the chance to get the usual attention for a party conference speech or of campaigning on the ground. But those factors didn’t stop Johnson from dipping in the polls in 2020, when his competence over handling of the pandemic, test and trace, Cummings’ rule-breaking and the A-levels and free school meals fiasco all hit hard.

The sheer feel good factor of an effective pandemic strategy seems to be what is powering the PM’s popularity and Hartlepool reflects the national polls giving the Tories a lead of upto 10 points. An eve-of-poll YouGov poll showed that 90% felt the government had handled the vaccination programme well with 51% crediting Johnson. While more than half felt the Tories had handled the pandemic badly, just 20% thought Starmer could have done better. 

2. Johnson is a master storyteller, Starmer is a poor one

Politics is often about storytelling and Johnson is a master at setting a narrative. His two London Mayoral victories, his Vote Leave leadership and his 2019 election landslide prove it. Such stories only work long term if they resonate with real life and produce real change, but so far Labour has been unable to show the PM is failing. Calling Johnson a liar risks looking like lecturing those who voted for him as deluded fools who can’t see the lies.

Unlike Johnson, Starmer looks uncomfortable making speeches or soundbites. On Wednesday night’s 10 o’clock BBC News, the PM listed positive reasons for voting Tory while accusing Labour of sniping from the sidelines. In his clip. Starmer mumbled something vague about voting for Labour candidates because they were the best for their local area. He needs to match his PMQs confidence with public speaking confidence.

Even if he rapidly improves his media and speaking skills, the Labour leader lacks a story to tell. ‘Build back better’ may turn out to be a broken promise, but Starmer so far hasn’t any coherent rival vision of his own. Only this week did he start to sketch that out, with talk of a Biden-style stimulus, crime-and-causes-of-crime policies, plus a plea to heal divisions. New Labour’s messaging worked because it had something for everyone, from the minimum wage and a windfall tax to welfare-to-work and improved schools and hospitals.

3. Brexitland values

Those who voted Tory for the first time in their lives in 2019 did so with real trepidation and are heavily invested in Johnson doing well – not just the pandemic but also on Brexit. Hartlepool voted 70% to Leave the EU and it looks like Jill Mortimer convinced a big chunk of the 26% who voted Brexit party in 2019 to vote Tory. While the PM can use Brexit as a weapon of choice (on the vaccines, on the European Super League, on the Jersey ‘cod war’), Starmer’s “don’t mention the war” approach isn’t working.

But as academics Maria Sobolewska and Rob Ford detailed in their book ‘Brexitland’, there are deep seated issues among working class voters that predate the 2016 referendum. Those who don’t go to university felt an increasing disconnect and a sense that their values on identity, crime and immigration have been ridiculed or demonised by Labour. When Starmer talks about “Labour values” it can feel like him saying his party has a monopoly on morality. The flipside of attacking the Tories as evil is that you risk telling Tory voters they’re evil too.

Leftwing MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle summed up the problem when he tweeted overnight “Good to see valueless flag waving and suit wearing working so well... or not?” Many working class voters are baffled by anyone questioning the Union Jack, let alone why wearing a suit is a bad thing. Angela Rayner was mocked by the Left for appearing before an England flag on St George’s Day and Rebecca Long-Bailey saw the value of “progressive patriotism” but had to retreat from it. Ed Miliband’s ‘Controls on immigration’ 2015 election coffee mug was inept but its message will again strike working class voters as wholly uncontroversial.

4. Hartlepool is not Oldham

Labour’s problems with white working class voters contrast with its successes in maintaining its vote among Britain’s large Asian population. But while that vote is incredibly loyal (as proved in seats like Bedford, as well as big cities, in the 2019 election), it is obviously absent in many towns across the country and Hartlepool is a clear example.

One criticism muttered among some local activists is that by-election campaign manager Jim McMahon seemed to treat the seat like his own seat of Oldham, which has a large Pakistani heritage population. In McMahon’s own by-election in 2015, he romped home by turning out that vote in big numbers. Yet local context matters and Teesside Mayor Ben Houchen had already given Labour voters a taste of voting Tory. There are wider lessons of the power of incumbency, as Blue Wall Tory MPs put down roots and organisation for 2023. 

Labour’s next big by-election challenge is likely to be in Batley and Spen, which sitting MP Tracey Brabin will have to vacate if she wins the West Yorkshire mayoralty. Fortunately for the party, there is a substantial south Asian heritage population in the seat and its loyalty could prove crucial. Yet unless Labour can equally motivate the white working class vote, it could be in trouble. Hartlepool is not Oldham. But as other local election results suggest, it is like a lot many other towns Labour once considered its own. 

5. Labour’s coalition of voters is less stable than Johnson’s

Under our first past the post voting system, no party can win a sustainable parliamentary majority unless it gathers a coalition of different groups of voters. The problem for Starmer is that Labour’s traditional coalition of working class and middle class voters seems much more unstable and softer than Johnson’s mix of Red Wall seats and true Blue Tory shires. Moreover, while Nigel Farage split Labour, he never really split the Tories.

Historically, the Conservative party has been the most successful political party on the planet precisely because it can adapt and reshape itself to build those coalitions. From leaders as different as Disraeli and Thatcher, it has harnessed the national mood among better off and less well off voters. Some hardline rightwing Tory MPs may quail at Johnson’s big spending, big state approach but as long as he delivers victories they will share that ruthless desire to stay in power.

One of the most worrying things for Starmer is that even when he was at nearly 40% in the polls, that stemmed from just a tiny number of direct Tory-to-Labour switchers. He had squeezed the Lib Dem and Green vote right down (just as Corbyn had in 2017), but hit a ceiling. Yet the Lib Dems and Greens (the latter picking up Corbyn supporters) are reviving slowly. In Sunderland, the Lib Dems gained four seats from Labour last night. The Greens had a stunning gain from Labour in a Stockport council ward. Both spell trouble.

6. Long Corbyn, long Miliband and Blair denial

Some Labour MPs maintain that the legacy of Corbyn’s dire reputation among working class voters is longer lasting than many think. That’s exactly why Johnson will repeatedly point out Starmer’s willingness to serve in a Corbyn government. But Starmer cannot hide from the fact that many of those voters haven’t warmed to him either.

The anti-Corbyn anger may be gone but a stay-at-home shrug from your core vote is just as electorally damaging. I’m told by insiders that even in London, Labour’s white working class vote in London failed to turn out (it’s often forgotten many of them voted Brexit too). The early response to the Hartlepool defeat by some around Starmer is to stress the problem predates Corbyn and goes back to Ed Miliband’s shift away from New Labour.

Perhaps the biggest issue for Starmer is that he often sounds like a soft left reincarnation of Ed Miliband, albeit one who says he shares Tony Blair’s hunger for winning and power. Some want him now to prove that hunger by focusing ruthlessly on aspiration as Labour’s theme. Starmer’s own personal history, as the son of a factory worker and nurse who went on to become the nation’s prosecutor, should be used to show he “gets it”.

Most of all, some MPs want Starmer to stop treating Blair like an embarrassing uncle and instead learn from his unparalleled success in winning elections. Their view is that while Blair was far from perfect (his own standing with working class voters took a big knock because of his push for Eastern European immigration) and the world has changed since 1997, 2001 and 2005, his overall success was to focus on the mainstream concerns of the public rather than fringe concerns of his party.

As for a possible challenge from the Left of his party, some MPs think that could help Starmer not hinder him, by giving him a chance to more sharply define himself. Yet he still needs to say what he is, rather than what he isn’t. His tough stance on anti-semitism was one example of showing the voters he had shaken up his party, but in truth many voters haven’t really cared about or paid attention to that bit of internal Labour politics.

Starmer has tried to make “strategic patience” the watchword of his political career. Yet the fact is that with a possible early general election in the autumn of 2023 (when Tory-friendly boundary changes to kick in), he hasn’t got much time to waste. As shadow cabinet minister Bridget Phillipson put it to me recently: “The voters are never wrong.” That may mean Starmer has to more clearly say why Corbyn, Milband and even Gordon Brown were wrong – and spell out exactly why Blair was often right.