The polling suggested the result would be bad – but the reality is worse. Labour has been devastated in Hartlepool.
In a town with 9 per cent unemployment (one of the highest rates in the country), hampered by decades of underinvestment in infrastructure, offering more of the same was never going to work, because doing so hasn’t for so long.
The appetite for change is clear. Just a few weeks ago the Communications Workers Union (CWU) and Survation conducted a poll of Hartlepool voters that showed that policies such as prioritising investment in public services over deficit reduction, and free universal broadband were extremely popular (with 67 per cent backing the former and 69 per cent the latter).
But instead of offering that change, Labour offered platitudes and flags. We have now paid the price.
This failure marks a disastrous end to the first year of Starmer’s leadership, which was supposed to begin a new era for Labour. Instead, our party is now ensnared in a deep crisis – one partly of Starmer’s making.
When the CWU’s Hartlepool polling was published, senior figures in the party not only ignored this message but also publicly ridiculed the messengers. It was a needless attack on a trade union that has done so much to support Labour over the years, including financially.
For a leader supposedly focused on “listening to voters” there seems to have been very little listening. And nor did Labour have much to say in this by-election, beyond a few half-clever lines on Tory sleaze and some confused messaging on an NHS pay rise that actually isn’t much of a pay rise at all.
From right to left, the last few years has shown that in politics being bold and clear is more effective than triangulating, especially in the face of Covid-19, spiralling wealth inequality and climate change.
During his leadership campaign, even Starmer recognised this fact, with his ten pledges offering some continuity with the radical policy programme developed under Corbyn. They have now been abandoned or completely contradicted.
In an age where politicians are instinctively distrusted, such inconsistency and opportunism was always going to have a wider impact. The collapse in Starmer’s personal approval ratings since the end of last year, and the significant growth in the number of voters that consider him untrustworthy, cannot be separated from his relationship to his own party.
But for Labour – which so many of us are committed to – the result in Hartlepool is seriously worrying. The political ground is shifting beyond our feet and something needs to change if we are to avoid getting crushed.
There are undoubtedly real challenges for Labour across large parts of northern England, where deindustrialisation has left economies cut off from investment and well-paid jobs, and demographic changes have fractured the party’s historic support base.
Yet we must not forget that at the 2017 general election Labour experienced a huge surge of support in Hartlepool, increasing its vote share by 17 per cent and reversing much of the electoral decline that took place under New Labour and Ed Miliband. This is true of many seats across the so-called Red Wall.
What is clear is that this isn’t a problem of Jeremy Corbyn’s making, Labour twice retained Hartlepool under his leadership. Starmer must own this defeat, especially after intervening to impose an unsuccessful candidate.
[see also: How Labour lost the Hartlepool by-election]
But the only way to own this defeat is to acknowledge that we need to change direction, not double down on a strategy that has taken us backwards. Momentum believes that this change must include a firm commitment to transformational socialist policies, such as a higher minimum wage and a Green Jobs Revolution, and an embrace of community organising and the latest campaigning techniques. The labour movement has made serious advances in these areas in the last five years and we at Momentum are proud to have played our part.
If Starmer is to succeed he must build on these successes. Simplistic narratives of Labour being “too left wing” not only collapse when tested against reality, they also drive away the committed members and voters we need to win a general election.
Labour can only win as a coalition in which the left has a key role, and Joe Biden’s presidency – though far from perfect – offers some insights on the approach needed. Starmer has so far gone the opposite way, and the result is a disunited party and electoral failure.
He can begin to rectify this by bringing Socialist Campaign Group MPs into the shadow cabinet and by ending the selection stitch-ups and needless suspension of members.
It is not 1997 any more. The economy and society has changed and how we win elections will have to change too. This means empowering the hundreds of thousands of members that are willing to take a socialist message into communities and adopting policies that offer solutions to the challenges created by Covid-19.
As a party, we cannot keep shying away from our historic mission to deliver economic and social justice. Voters smell the hypocrisy and the lack of confidence in our purpose. It’s time Labour picked a side and fought the battle. If Starmer doesn’t, not only will he be out of a job – but Labour may be out of government forever.
Deborah Hermanns is a member of Momentum’s National Coordinating Group