Why it’s too early to rush to judgement on Labour’s performance in Hartlepool

The key question is not whether Keir Starmer’s party wins or loses the by-election, but how.

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It’s “Super Thursday” and polls have opened for elections to the Scottish and Welsh parliaments, to 143 local councils in England, for 13 directly elected mayors in England, 39 police and crime commissioners in England and Wales, and for a new MP in Hartlepool.

In Scotland, the election is existential, with the polls too close to call on whether the SNP can win an overall majority. In Wales, polling indicates that Labour is similarly on track to be the biggest party in the Senedd, although it is in the balance whether it will be able to govern alone or in coalition. In England, councils that were last elected in 2016, before the Brexit referendum, are up for election alongside councils that were last elected in 2017, when Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour lost more than 300 council seats. Some councils only have a third of their seats up for election, others have half, and others the entire council.

[see also: Why even a narrow win in Hartlepool would not bode well for Labour]

It is a complex picture: you would expect Brexit realignment – and maybe Labour losses – in 2016 councils to be offset by Labour gains from a low base in 2017. But that complexity has been somewhat lost, as many commentators and activists seem to have skipped the bit where we hear the results and moved straight to forming a verdict on Keir Starmer’s leadership. 

There are not many helpful lessons to be drawn or damning verdicts worth listening to that aren't based on the actual results. It isn’t, for example, about whether Labour holds or loses Hartlepool, but how. The lessons for the party will be different if, for example, more people vote Labour in the council election than for its candidate Paul Williams in the by-election. One outcome is a comment on how Labour is doing in this part of the north-east; the other is a direct comment on a decision by Starmer’s office to directly impose a candidate on the seat. 

It isn’t just in the interests of reliable journalism to wait for data to inform analysis. It is in the interests of anyone hoping to mount a defence or criticism of any of the party leaders to study the trends and know exactly what they’re dealing with first. 

[see also: The politics of Hartlepool, a candidate on Mars and the PM’s penury]

Ailbhe Rea is political correspondent at the New Statesman.

She co-hosts the New Statesman podcast, discussing the latest in UK politics.

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