Analysis – What’s wrong with Britain’s Labour?

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Voters in an opposition stronghold turned en masse to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservatives, boosting his parliamentary majority on Friday despite a high COVID-19 death toll, last year’s record economic slump and cronyism charges.

Conservative Jill Mortimer beat Labour’s candidate in Thursday’s ballot by 15,529 votes to 8,589 to take the parliamentary seat for Hartlepool, a victory once unthinkable in a northeastern English port town that for decades backed Britain’s main opposition party.

Labour’s crushing Hartlepool defeat is its worst result in the area since the Second World War, historic data shows, with the by-election lending further weight to suggestions that the party is being abandoned by its traditional base. 

The Hartlepool by-election, which took place outside the normal parliamentary cycle, was triggered by the resignation of a Labour lawmaker in March.

Election analysts said it was the biggest swing of votes to the governing party at a by-election since World War Two. The outcome wrong-footed critics who have taken aim at the prime minister over sleaze allegations and for failing to move quickly enough to tackle the coronavirus crisis. Britain has one of the world’s highest COVID-19 death tolls.

Initial results from other elections, which will be released over several days because COVID-19 restrictions have slowed the counts, indicated the Conservatives had also gained seats on English councils, which look after local services.

The Hartlepool result continues a trend set by Johnson in the 2019 parliamentary election when he struck directly at Labour’s heartlands, the “Red Wall” areas of northern and central England, to score a commanding majority in parliament on a simple message to “get Brexit done”.

Labour had tried to manage expectations over the vote, saying that Thursday’s elections would always be difficult at a time of the coronavirus pandemic, which has boosted support for the government because of its rapid vaccine rollout.

Starmer, who was elected leader last year, has tried to shift Labour towards the centre ground after two defeats under Jeremy Corbyn’s leftist leadership, but has struggled to bridge the divides and unite Labour around a clear agenda.

“I think what this election shows is that people want a party and a government that is focused on them, focused on delivering change,” he told reporters, standing in front of a giant inflatable version of himself.

“I think what’s happened now is they can see that we did get Brexit done and to a certain extent they can see that we delivered on that. And I think what people want us to do now is to get on with delivering with everything else.”

Starmer expressed his bitter disappointment at the result, pledging to do whatever it takes to reconnect to voters.

“I am bitterly disappointed in the results and I take full responsibility for the result and I will take full responsibility for fixing things,” he told reporters.

Labour lawmakers were quick to portray the loss as a hangover from the 2019 national election, when the party suffered one of its worst results, and some pointed the finger at Corbyn – something one of his allies called “a loser’s line”.

“I feel … pretty angry because I think we could have seen this coming some time ago, indeed years ago. Since Labour left office in 2010 we haven’t played it well,” said Peter Mandelson, who was the Labour lawmaker for Hartlepool from 1992 and 2004.

“We’ve lost contact…with many of the respectable, working-class bedrock voters,” said Mandelson, a minister under former prime minister Tony Blair.

A London-based bourgeoisie, with the support of brigades of woke social media warriors, has effectively captured the party.

Khalid Mahmood

Labour MP Khalid Mahmood has quit Keir Starmer’s frontbench, warning that the party has been taken over by “a London-based bourgeoisie, with the support of brigades of woke social media warriors”. The Independent reported, Mahmood saying “In the past decade, Labour has lost touch with ordinary British people,” he said.  “A London-based bourgeoisie, with the support of brigades of woke social media warriors, has effectively captured the party.  “They mean well, of course, but their politics – obsessed with identity, division and even tech utopianism – have more in common with those of Californian high society than the kind of people who voted in Hartlepool yesterday.  “The loudest voices in the Labour movement over the past year in particular have focused more on pulling down Churchill’s statue than they have on helping people pull themselves up in the world.   “No wonder it is doing better among rich urban liberals and young university graduates than it is amongst the most important part of its traditional electoral coalition, the working-class.”

Boris Johnson has a powerful personal appeal which reaches beyond traditional party loyalties

An FT analysis states that the results also shows that English voters are broadly satisfied with, or at least forgiving of, Boris Johnson’s handling of the pandemic; Boris Johnson has a powerful personal appeal which reaches beyond traditional party loyalties and that the result will mean that the battle within Labour will intensify.

Labour simply no longer emotionally connects with its former core. 

Sherelle Jacobs

Sherelle Jacobs, Daily Telegraph’s columnist wrote “Labour’s demise in such areas is not down to a single event. Nor can it be blamed on its policies, or even Keir Starmer’s bland leadership. Clinging to Brexit as a comfort blanket to avoid this harsh reality will not do. The estrangement is cultural. Labour simply no longer emotionally connects with its former core. 

Despite strenuously avoiding the subject of Brexit, the party radiates a mystified disdain for ordinary people. Its woke membership think patriotism is a dangerous Middle English fundamentalism. Its bourgeois MPs regard towns that brim with potential, such as Hartlepool, as “left behind” cesspits. The hard-Left continues to blame its defeats on the depthless selfishness of the electorate. Keir Starmer’s attempts to change voter opinion has proved in vain. They can smell the insincerity of his attempt to embrace flag waving and veterans. 

Something deeper still is detectable – a sense that Labour no longer knows not only how to connect with people but with the age. Their demise across the North East and the Midlands is beginning to seem redolent of the strange death of Liberal England in the first quarter of the 20th century.

With the enfranchisement of the working class, decline of empire and destruction of the First World War, liberal values – freedom, free trade, progress – suddenly seemed quaintly ancient; as the writer George Dangerfield put it: “nothing more than bits of old iron, fragments of intimate crockery, and other relics of a domestic past”. Today, with the rise of consumerism, an impatiently ambitious lower-middle class, and international volatility, Labour values of class solidarity and corporate globalism seem cloyingly anachronistic.

Responding to critics who question whether Labour has fallen too far behind to ever climb to victory again, Sir Keir denied that the party faces an existential crisis. Asked about a widely touted reshuffle of his top team, Sir Keir did not deny that a shake up was imminent, but warned it would not be sufficient on its own to reinvigorate the party. “We’ve lost four general elections, we’ve just had a bitterly disappointing set of results last night,” he said. “This goes way beyond a reshuffle or personalities.”

CDEIU – ElectionWatch Political Analysis