In a tense night of two dead heats during the Northumberland County Council local election count this week, the old pit village of Hartley changed hands from Labour to the Tories. The leader of the Labour group lost the ward on a ballot draw – when candidates pick names from a box to decide who wins in the event of a tie.
A cluster of other Conservative gains, including nearby Seghill with Seaton Delaval – also once the site of a colliery – meant the party took control of the council, which had previously been under no overall control.
These results were a particular blow to Laura Pidcock, the former Labour MP once tipped as a Corbynite rising star, who won the North West Durham constituency in 2017 only to lose it to her Tory opponent in 2019: the first time the seat had ever turned blue.
Pidcock, 33, was born and brought up in New Hartley and later moved to Seaton Delaval. Her commitment to socialism was forged in these places: New Hartley, she points out, has a memorial to the 204 men and children who died in a pit disaster there in 1862.
“It’s just devastating,” she tells me from her front room in County Durham, a miner’s lamp placed proudly on a shelf in the background. “It’s so hard to see this all unfold. The Conservatives are not going to deliver for our communities.”
Yet the shift to the Tories “isn’t a surprise”, she adds. “Because there has been so much cultural change.”
Pidcock, who has been national secretary of the anti-austerity People’s Assembly movement and a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee since 2020, was reflecting on this “cultural change” long before she lost North West Durham.
She believes the Conservatives have “reinvented themselves post the austerity era of [David] Cameron; they’ve quite successfully tried to disassociate themselves from that while carrying out the same fiscal operation”.
Yet her main focus is her own party, which she sees as losing out to a movement “away from people connecting the Labour Party with their identity and industry, and that connection with organised labour disintegrating”.
She is also critical of recent political decisions by Labour. She says she “argued privately” against the party committing to a second referendum on EU membership before the 2019 December election, and describes voters becoming “much more angry with Jeremy Corbyn” between 2017 and 2019.
While she argues Corbyn “bucked the trend in 2017 of actual long-term decline away from Labour” (when the party made unexpected gains), she concludes voters eventually felt Labour was planning to “frustrate the Brexit process”, which “damaged Jeremy’s reputation”.
She also believes Keir Starmer has been making mistakes. “I think there was a feeling that there had to be a strategic departure from Jeremy Corbyn’s style of leadership, and how that manifested in my view was really not saying very much about the big issues of the day.
“A year of not really saying very much gets you defeat,” she adds bluntly.
Pidcock opposes Starmer’s approach of “constructive criticism” during the pandemic. “As a lay person who is also working class and has family members going into those workplaces – where there are threats over jobs and health and safety – where is that anger? Where is the opposition? Please, please shout louder for us.”
As a former shadow minister, Pidcock believes any imminent reshuffle of Starmer’s cabinet should avoid a “lurch to the right”.
“I really don’t think Keir Starmer’s got much of an option now other than to start being much more clear, much more resolute about what he believes in. The alternative is what we’ve got today [defeats in elections].”
Refocusing on patriotism – with more Union Jack imagery, and statements expressing respect for the royal family and the British military – would also be “futile”, in Pidcock’s view.
“It can’t be superficial, it can’t be signs and symbols and surface-level nods to a stereotypical idea of working-class communities. The working class is so diverse. It’s an exoticisation but also almost a romantic vision about our habits and the way we live – when we are such a diverse class.”
Yet she stops short of suggesting Starmer or any other senior Labour figures should resign, which she believes would be “adding to the circus of it all”.
Other voices on Labour’s left have been reluctant to call for their leader’s resignation. Former shadow chancellor John McDonnell told the BBC’s Today programme this morning (7 May) that “Keir’s got to be given his chance”. Instead, he called on the party leadership to focus on filling its “policy vacuum”.
In contrast, Andrew Adonis, the former New Labour cabinet minister, has condemned Starmer in a piece in the Times as a “transitional figure” and urged Labour to decide “what Keir transitions to and when”.
The Momentum network of left-wing supporters claimed “a transformative socialist message has won in Hartlepool before, and it would have won again”.
Former shadow cabinet minister Richard Burgon, whose unsuccessful deputy Labour leadership campaign was run by Pidcock, tweeted that the party “needs to urgently change direction… by championing popular policies in our recent manifestos”.
And Diane Abbott, a key Corbyn ally who served as his shadow home secretary, warned it’s “not possible to blame Jeremy Corbyn for this result. Labour won the seat twice under his leadership.”
As more local and devolved election results trickle in, there are no obvious answers to what Labour should do next – and no simple narrative for any of its factions to cling to. South of the Tyne, the Greens have gained two council seats from the Labour Party on South Tyneside Council, for example.
For the Labour left, however, the answers lie in having confidence in the left-wing policy programme developed under Corbyn.
“I strongly recommend to Keir Starmer that [the direction of the party] should not be a lurch to the right,” Pidcock stresses. “People aren’t hearing those shy, reformist, tinkering around the edges of the system; they won’t believe that will have a material change in their lives.”
[see also: The 2021 local and devolved elections liveblog]