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4 May 2021updated 13 Sep 2021 5:01am

Labour is too weak to win and too strong to die

The Hartlepool by-election shows Labour is rudderless in an era in which cultural values, not class, shape voting patterns. 

By Philip Collins

Commander John Kerans was an assistant naval attaché in Nanking, China in 1949 who took control of HMS Amethyst when the ship came under fire on the Yangtze river during the latter stages of the Chinese Civil War. After being detained for ten weeks, Commander Kerans led a night-time flight. His escapade became the subject of a film, Yangtze Incident: The Story of HMS Amethyst, and Kerans is the hero of Nigel Farndale’s Last Action Hero of the British Empire. As if all that were not enough for one life, Commander Kerans then went on to become the Conservative MP for The Hartlepools at the 1959 general election.

Commander Kerans is, until this week at least, the only Conservative to represent the town since the formation of the Labour Party. Indeed, the constituency is a parable in the history of Labour. The party first stood a candidate in Hartlepool in 1923, got to second place by 1931, won for the first time in 1945 and has held the seat, with the exception of Commander Kerans, ever since. Hartlepool was a ship-building town, an industrial stronghold of organised Labour. The working class voted with its perceived material interest and Labour won time and again. Tony Blair once said that New Labour would truly be established when the party learned to love Peter Mandelson. In Hartlepool they did, and he was the local MP from April 1992 to September 2004.

Now the town looks likely to be the 11th seat in the north east of England that falls to the Conservative Party. Where once trod the last action of the British empire there is now Jill Mortimer, a farmer from Thirsk who, when asked if she had visited Hartlepool before, replied that she had once visited its battery museum. The last data before polling day suggested the Tories had a substantial lead. Labour only held on in 2019 because the Brexit vote split between the Tories and Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party.

Now that the latter has rebranded as the anti-lockdown Reform UK, the Brexit vote is uniting. Something grand is happening on the east coast of County Durham and it may not stop at the Hartlepool by-election. Of the 18 seats that Labour still holds in the north east, a further seven – Washington and Sunderland West, Wansbeck, Sunderland Central, Stockton North, Houghton and Sunderland South, Easington and Blaydon – would also fall if the residual Brexit Party vote went to the Conservatives as a bloc, as it appears to be doing in Hartlepool.

Politics has shifted on its axis and the Labour Party does not know what to do about it. The change is easy to describe but hard to contend with. Where once voting was largely an aspect of class and occupational solidarity, now it has become an expression of cultural attitude. The gateway drug was Brexit, which has made political affiliation unrecognisable to politicians schooled on industrial politics, representing a party whose name harks back to the time when labour versus capital was a serviceable description of the contest.

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The Labour Party is finding this new dispensation impossible for three reasons. First, the apparent pantomime horse of the Tory coalition (rural areas and affluent towns with old industrial towns) is united on questions of culture. It is a more stable vote, at least for the moment, than it might seem.

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Second, Labour is deeply committed, psychologically, to being the party of the sans-culottes. Not many people go into Labour politics to represent the interests of the wealthy, university-educated, socially liberal people who are turning into its core vote. Labour has historically been made up of such people but their aim was always to talk de haut en bas to the northern working class. Now, to their surprise, the northern working class is talking back.

There is a third problem even greater than getting into the frame of mind for change. Even if Labour were able to relinquish its self-image as the saviours of the dispossessed, the arithmetic is horrible. The socially liberal people tend to live together, in cities, and large clusters of people produce emphatic victories in a smaller range of constituencies, rather than decent victories in many. The 2016 Brexit referendum reproduced as a general election would produce a good victory for the right. Then, Labour has a serious problem in Scotland. The cultural vote that Labour needs in Scotland is now the preserve of the SNP. In short, the political right can unite around culture, the left is split in Britain, and that is without even venturing to suggest a merger with the Liberal Democrats, a subject liable to induce apoplexy in Labour circles.

The 2021 local elections and the Hartlepool by-election will delineate the new politics. Sadiq Khan will thrash Shaun Bailey to win a second term as mayor of London. Andy Burnham will weigh the votes in a resplendent Manchester. Meanwhile, Ben Houchen will win again as mayor of Teeside for the Conservatives and Hartlepool will elect its successor to Commander Kerans. There will be a lot of talk in the aftermath about the death of the Labour Party, but perhaps Labour is both too weak to win and too strong to die. The brand is highly durable and the electoral system is unforgiving to new parties, so long as Labour remains.

In 1980 Commander John Kerans retired to the small town of Oxted in Surrey, where a young man called Keir was at the time finishing his A-levels. That man has just spent most of a week in Hartlepool trying, probably in vain, to hold off the next Commander Kerans. Maybe a recession will change the politics of Hartlepool. Maybe Labour can fashion a story that wins back the north-east while retaining London. But, if he does not want to go down as the last action hero of the Labour Party, Keir Starmer has a lot to do, and the challenge may be beyond him.

This piece appears in the forthcoming issue of the New Statesman magazine, subscribe here.

This article appears in the 05 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, If not now, when?