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The Tories’ Hartlepool triumph owes more to cash than culture wars

The Conservatives’ by-election victory was built on a new brand of red-green Toryism.   

By James Meadway

Labour is not only failing to improve on 2019, it is going backwards. Hartlepool was a disaster, the party’s vote share falling by 9 per cent. In a microcosm of Labour’s problems nationally, its vote there has, with the exception of 2017, declined in every election since 1997. Meanwhile, councils and council seats across its former heartlands have swung to the Tories, while the Greens are picking off support to its left, including in parts of the “Red Wall”. This is a party dangerously close to being in terminal decline.

Sadly, the response to the electoral humiliation from some quarters is to highlight only the most immediate problems and insist on doubling down on the current strategy. There are some short-term issues contributing to the collapse. The timing of the Hartlepool by-election meant running it alongside the Tees Valley mayoral election, where popular Tory Ben Houchen was standing for re-election. Aided by Treasury cash, Houchen has promoted a new brand of red-green Toryism with a distinctly workerist tinge, pushing the potential for clean investment to create new jobs. 

If support for the Tories was simply about them waving the Union Jack with more enthusiasm, or claiming to ape Winston Churchill, Labour’s task would be easy: Keir Starmer can wave a flag and drink a pint – he perhaps only needs to start chomping cigars to nail the look. The symbols matter, but the Tories have attached them to material interests. They have paid for almost a third of the country to stay home during the past year, via the furlough scheme, and can plausibly claim to have delivered one of the world’s most successful vaccination programmes.

Beyond the first phase of the pandemic, they have talked up investment in green jobs, and the Treasury, via the Towns Fund, has carefully targeted cash at marginal Tory seats. Austerity in key parts of the public sector has been either halted or reversed, with schools funding – a major factor for voters switching to Labour in the 2017 election – now rising per pupil after years of cuts. And while Rishi Sunak has proposed some theoretical future cuts, he is entirely at liberty not to implement them. Judging by past experience, he won’t.

All this may come larded with Johnsonian bluster and stolen rhetoric, but, as both Marx and Madonna have noted, it’s the cold hard cash that matters. The “Red Wall” Tory voters, the Economist found, were younger and middle class, with clear material demands that the Tories were meeting. Notably, Houchen himself rarely, if ever, plays up to the culture war issues that are catnip to the right-wing media but which tend to leave voters cold. Down in the West Midlands, where the race is tighter but Labour still looks likely to fall short, Andy Street is carving out a similar profile, with less ouvrierist rhetoric than Houchen, but with the same focus on jobs, investment and, crucially, government intervention to secure them. Labour’s campaign was beset by organisational difficulties, but, again, the bigger picture is key.

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[see also: Labour isn’t working – why only radical change can save Keir Starmer’s project]

Throw in the support given to house prices by ultra-low interest rates, alongside bottomless quantitative easing money and the sugar-rush economic rebound as restrictions are loosened over the summer, and the economic situation alone would be enough to do much of the heavy lifting for the Tories in the short term. But it’s the Conservatives’ long-term economic strategy that ought to be the main concern. As leaks to the Sunday Times have shown, they are thinking in terms of a five to ten-year “endemic recovery plan”, slotting their electoral prerogatives into a world where Covid will remain a lurking menace for a while yet.

These aren’t the Tories of the 1990s, burned out by their prior radicalism and consumed by a destructive row over Europe. The latter has been firmly resolved. Peter Mandelson’s invocations of Blair are useless now. They aren’t even the Tories of the 2010s, pushing austerity through until it reached a political breaking point sometime around 2016. Johnson has increased funding enough, in the right sort of places, for it to count. Starmer’s criticisms of spending cuts will fall short.

It is possible to correct this, but three things need to happen. First, the party needs to find something to say about itself and what it wants to do. At a minimum, failing to have policies means (in the words of John McDonnell) sending the party out “naked” into a campaign. Joe Biden’s plans for a dramatic $400bn investment in the care economy could be reproduced here. With reports suggesting the Tories are once again likely to flop into a row over the funding of social care, so damaging to them in the 2017 election, Labour should be moving quickly onto the attack. The comprehensive Labour Together review into what went wrong in the 2019 election was very clear that a radical economic pitch is the only way to hold the party’s coalition together.

Second, Labour will either win as a coalition or it will not win at all. This should be made explicit: Labour is an assemblage of forces, its left and its right, and it should look to work with other parties and movements to defeat the Tories in elections. This point should be underlined by backing proportional representation, which is rapidly gaining support inside the party (Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham is the most recent convert).

Third, Labour should work from its real bases of support – which means places such as Manchester – recognising that its new core vote includes the young, the insecurely employed and private renters. Often these people will be self-employed or owners of small businesses: there are now around five million self-employed people in the UK, against six million trade union members. Colchester in Essex saw gains for Labour, one of a number of fast-growing places in the south-east swinging towards the party as younger people are priced out of London. You build, and rebuild, outwards from where you are strong, and you win in the places moving towards you.

[see also: Keir Starmer cannot blame Labour’s loss of Hartlepool on Jeremy Corbyn – he must own this defeat]