Two things can both be true about the Hartlepool by-election. The first is that Labour already effectively lost this seat 18 months ago, in December 2019. The only reason they didn’t lose it then, under Jeremy Corbyn, is because the Brexit Party split the vote, soaking up 26 per cent and depriving the Tory candidate of a victory. Brexit Party voters were latent Tories, as academic data has shown and this week’s result confirmed.
That 2019 Brexit vote was always likely to flow to the Tories as a bloc at this by-election. A Labour loss of around 12 points was therefore expected.
But the party lost by 23 points on Thursday, which brings us onto the second fact: while Labour may have all but lost the seat in December 2019, this result under Keir Starmer is dire on its own terms. It is plainly an indictment of his leadership and the party he leads.
There may be worse to come for Labour. If we assume that the 2019 Brexit vote will continue to turn Tory (as we have every reason to do), at least 20 Labour MPs – including Ed Miliband, Yvette Cooper and John Healey – would fail to win a by-election held in their seat today. Unless politics shifts significantly by 2023 or 2024 when the next general election is held, these MPs are all on borrowed time.
[See also: How Labour lost the Hartlepool by-election]
This week’s result is only the latest event in Labour’s decade-long decline. The party was put on notice in Hartlepool long ago – in the 2015 election, when Labour was led by Miliband. That election showed that any Tory party which managed to absorb the Ukip vote without alienating its own voters could win dozens of Labour seats. From my calculations the combined Conservative and Ukip vote in 2015 exceeded Labour’s share of the vote in 404 seats across England and Wales.
At the 2017 and 2019 elections, the Tories absorbed that Ukip/Brexit vote without alienating their moderate supporters – they did so stutteringly in 2017 and emphatically in 2019 – despite Johnson expelling some of those moderates from the parliamentary party, and alienating the sensibilities of many of them.
Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings, whatever you think of them and regardless of their actions since, made the right strategic call in 2019. They gambled that moderate Tories were politically inelastic – they would vote Tory even if No 10 alienated them. (Both Nicholas Soames and Ken Clarke, moderate Tory grandees expelled from the party by Johnson, nevertheless told me in the run-up to the 2019 election that they would still likely vote Conservative.)
Brexiteer/Ukippy Tories, on the other hand, were politically elastic: if you didn’t cater to them, you would lose them to a party who did. Johnson, guided by Cummings, moved hard to the right and absorbed them, in effect uniting the Tory-Ukip blocs from the 2015 election. Many liberally-minded pundits denounced Johnson’s Faragist shift at the time. But as a strategy for winning power, it worked.
Labour’s strategic decisions, in contrast, have failed time and again since their surprise success in the 2017 election. And the Labour strategist most responsible for their failings since then may well be Keir Starmer.
After the 2016 referendum, Labour had only two plausible strategies. They could either accept Brexit, in a bid to hold onto their heartland voters, or reject it categorically in a bid to unite the Remain vote. They tried the former strategy at the 2017 election, and it worked in part – they temporarily won back voters who had drifted to Ukip in 2015.
But in 2019 the party equivocated – guided by Starmer, then Corbyn’s shadow Brexit secretary. The attempt to pursue the second strategy and unite the Remain vote failed, and the party was predictably crushed at the ensuing election.
Starmer’s strategic silence on Brexit since winning the leadership has proven no more effective. Labour fumbled the post-Brexit aftermath, and voters in places like Hartlepool, which strongly backed Brexit, have in turn rejected Labour. Starmer is as responsible as anyone.