Hartlepool falls. A constituency that Peter Mandelson held with a majority of 17,508 when New Labour swept to power in 1997 is sending a Conservative MP to Westminster for the first time in its 47-year existence. A sitting government, and one that has been in power for 11 years, has won a by-election for only the third time in four decades. And the first council results from elsewhere in the country suggest “Super Thursday” was exactly that for Boris Johnson.
Though expected, Hartlepool is a remarkable result that cannot be explained only by a “vaccination bounce”. There was a 16 per cent swing to the Conservatives despite the government presiding over one of the worst Covid-19 death rates in the world, running up colossal debts, risking the break-up of the United Kingdom and severely undermining the nation’s global stature. Johnson won despite being embroiled in scandal and his long record of lying, cronyism, dishonesty and disregard for international or domestic law.
The Prime Minister gets away with all that because he has mastered the art of tribal politics. Unlike previous prime ministers, he has no interest in uniting the country. On the contrary, he prospers by dividing it. He is the self-styled “champion of the people” fighting against a corrupt establishment and against a self-serving “metropolitan elite”, and so long as the opposition remains as weak, fragmented and demoralised as it is that strategy works.
He focuses relentlessly on his “tribe”. He channels money to it. He panders to its prejudices – fighting culture wars, making scapegoats of immigrants and asylum seekers, and cutting foreign aid. He cynically wraps himself in the flag – sending gunboats to Jersey and an aircraft carrier to the Far East, expanding our nuclear arsenal, repainting the prime ministerial plane red, white and blue and, reportedly, resurrecting the idea of a royal yacht. He continues to bash and blame Brussels though we have now left the European Union. He governs through vacuous, feel-good, headline-grabbing announcements faithfully repeated – but seldom questioned – by the right-wing press.
[see also: Commons Confidential: Johnson’s showboat]
For the time being, all this renders him impregnable. Whenever the opposition attacks him, he simply invokes “the people” and his tribe rallies to his defence. He may be a scoundrel, but he is their scoundrel. He admits nothing, apologises for nothing, and they cheer him on.
In the wake of not-so-super Thursday there will doubtless be calls for Keir Starmer to go, and for a new Labour leader, but that is absurd.
First, he has been in the job scarcely 14 months – 14 extraordinarily difficult months thanks to the political and physical constraints of the national crisis caused by the pandemic. Second, there is no obvious alternative, no captivating character who is clearly capable of doing a better job. Third, there is little in the short term that any opposition leader can do against a charismatic populist in full spate, promising the earth and spending taxpayers’ money like water.
Certainly, there are areas where Starmer could improve. He needs new advisers. He should strengthen his shadow cabinet and raise its profile so Labour seems less of a one-man band. In my opinion, he should seize every opportunity to highlight the baleful consequences of Brexit – the most momentous development in recent British history – instead of ignoring them. He should recognise that he cannot win back Red Wall seats like Hartlepool simply by banishing the “B- word”, or by striving to appear more “patriotic” than Johnson.
Above all, Starmer must do what Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair did in their opposition years. He must develop a genuinely compelling alternative to Johnson’s populism – not just a string of ad-hoc policies but a coherent package that would merge economic equality, social justice, environmentalism, better services, fiscal responsibility, international collaboration and honest government into an overarching vision capable of galvanising the public’s imagination.
There is opportunity in defeat. Johnson’s tribe is far from a majority. The political landscape is in flux as never before, with Brexit having destroyed traditional party allegiances. Just as the Prime Minister has encroached on Labour’s traditional heartlands, Starmer should target the tens of millions of voters excluded from his new tribe – Londoners and urbanites, Britain’s Celtic fringes, graduates, professionals, the young, the progressively-minded, even disaffected Tory moderates and Liberal Democrats who despair of being in a party seemingly doomed to irrelevance. To court them, he must avoid a panicky lurch to the left.
Populism never lasts. Johnson cannot defy gravity forever. His schtick will pall. At some point he will surely face an economic and political reckoning, and even his tribe will realise that his promises were empty. We have to believe that integrity and intellect will ultimately trump charisma and frivolity.