Last week, a senior member of Keir Starmer’s shadow cabinet told me: “If the Tories can win Hartlepool, nowhere is safe. They can win anywhere.” A seat that had been Labour since its creation, slap-bang in what the party once called its heartlands, its significance was painfully obvious to Starmer’s team. They had moulded their leader and their entire strategy around winning back the “red wall”, and here was their first crucial test. Even amid the largest ever set of polls outside a general election, senior officials at party HQ kicked off their operations meeting each morning with a discussion of this one constituency 260 miles up the M1. Time, money, staff: they threw whatever they could at it.
They still got bulldozered. Hartlepool has voted by a landslide for a Conservative who, by her own admission, has spent more time in the Cayman Islands than in the town she will from next week represent at Westminster. And the really bad news for Labour is: there’s much more bad news to come.
In 2017, Tees Valley and West Midlands elected Tory mayors by the slimmest of margins. This time around, Ben Houchen and Andy Street won’t have to count their majorities; they can weigh them. The catalogue of failings under Boris Johnson’s government – its lethal complacency over Covid, botched return of schooling and exams and its transfiguration of Downing Street into a donor-sponsored artisanal Versailles – counts for nothing. Instead, the prime minister will spend the weekend being chauffeured between celebration parties. Meanwhile, Labour is about to descend into what one backbencher last night predicted as “an almighty punch-up”, complete with bitter reshuffles of both Starmer’s own office and the shadow cabinet.
All this will doubtless make good copy, since Labour’s expertise at staging a family row in public is unequalled outside the Queen Vic. But it makes not a jot of difference to the big picture, which is that the UK is undergoing one of the most sweeping electoral reconfigurations of our lifetimes. It runs much deeper and further back than Johnson’s leadership of the Tories, but it gifts his party a clear run at redefining politics and economics in this country, which they show every intention of doing.
It is high time people in the Labour party, whether on its right or left, pulled their noses out of their navels and saw that. In the landslide defeat of December 2019, both sides sought false comfort in tinny excuses, in booing Jeremy Corbyn or hissing at treacherous frontbench remainers. This was not analysis but score-settling, yet it has shaped Starmer’s first year. The new leader has spent every minute of airtime showing the public that he is not-Corbyn and not-Johnson, and not-remain and not-opposition-for-the-sake-of-it. He has taken barely a second to define what he is.
Starmer growls about “Major Sleaze” serving the money men – but never delivers the obvious punchline that only he is on the public’s side. The impression is that all politicians are corrupt. His lieutenants complain about the Tories buying up seats with the sweeties of public investment and government jobs – but rarely say what they would offer, because they haven’t worked that bit out. The result is that voters look at the pork barrel and decide they quite fancy a bacon sarnie, too.
Starmer’s parliamentary private secretary, Carolyn Harris, gloats at how upset her boss makes the Labour left and says, “we must be doing it right because this is what it’s all about” – when actually (as people like Harris rightly used to tell Corbyn’s lot), it’s all about attracting voters. From this the public deduces that Labour is more bothered about its own faction-fighting than taking on Johnson, and they are correct.
The sum total of all this is that Starmer and his team look scared of their own voters. They don’t know what to do about the activists who congregated around Corbyn, so try to expel some and hope the rest will fade away. They don’t know what to offer so-called red wall voters, so proffer a union flag. It looks focus-grouped and fake because it is.
This weekend, the radio and TV will be full of Starmer’s aides, advisers and would-be advisers intoning that he needs to “speed up the pace” of modernising the party. In layman’s terms, what they mean is he should double down on a losing strategy and travel even further along this dead end. The Labour leader would be far better off looking at those rare victories his party will chalk up this weekend, such as Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester and Paul Dennett in Salford. Those are two high-profile local politicians happy to champion the people on their side of a dividing line and to give Johnson some serious stick. And they offer some good lessons to their colleagues in Westminster.
The political classes took that flyweight David Cameron far too seriously and haven’t taken Johnson seriously enough, but the truth is that he is remoulding Conservatism and his own party in a way we have not seen since Margaret Thatcher. As a prime minister, Johnson is abysmal. As an electioneering party leader, he is unrivalled and uninhibited. Whatever Team Starmer says, these are not the same old Tories.
To be sure, they burst with contradictions, preaching both balanced budgets and massive public spending. It is a political force headed by a coterie that sneers at John Lewis while pretending to be on the side of those who aspire to shop there. Yet a project is taking shape, especially if one looks at those two mayors, Houchen and Street. It is based around buildings and burning red tape, state-led investment and deregulation. It is about public investment rather than public services, Keynesianism without the welfare state. Call it capitalism with Brexit characteristics.
Faced with this, the natural tendency of Labour wonks is to fact-check this project into oblivion, to show all the ways in which Tweedledum disagrees with Tweedledee. But as the socialist intellectual Stuart Hall wrote while Thatcher was crushing Neil Kinnock in the 1987 general election: “People don’t vote for Thatcherism, in my view, because they believe the small print … It invites us to think about politics in images. It is addressed to our collective fantasies, to Britain as an imagined community.”
The job of the centre-left is to offer some images of its own. Forget the shrunken, desiccated retail offers, forgotten by the next morning. Better to try to prove that you understand what voters want because you share their frustrations and hopes. So talk about what Labour would offer your community, your street. The genuinely affordable houses it would build, the childcare it would lay on, the care homes it would extract from the private equity barons. This would be about the state being on your side, rather than run for big business and select lobbyists. It would be supported by the leadership allowing Labour outside Westminster much deeper national and regional identities, to run ahead of the shadow cabinet, just as Preston city council has done with its guerrilla localism.
Finally the party should turn its constituency offices into community hubs, food banks, welfare advice centres – showing what Labour can do for voters even in long years out of office. Enough of mistaking focus groups for listening to people, of passing off professionalised caution as wisdom, of pretending top-down social democracy can fly in an era of polarisation and social impatience. Enough!
Aditya Chakrabortty is a Guardian columnist