For once, there was agreement in the Labour party this week. MPs, former advisers and activists from across the party’s political spectrum were all nervously sending messages about how it the byelection results didn’t look promising in Hartlepool. “It was like watching a car crash in slow motion as the results came in last night,” says one former advisor. The Conservatives won 15,529 votes, with 8,589 for Labour. Jill Mortimer defeated the Labour candidate, Dr Paul Williams, by 6,940 votes. An inflatable Boris Johnson was displayed in the town in celebration while Labour began a reckoning.
“This was so easy to foresee and it is not where we need to be,” another insider adds. “We await an inquest. This is not the performance of an opposition party heading for government. Keir Starmer will be bothered by this. He is very serious and everything is structured around him wanting to win. He will be worried.”
Paul Williams, an outspoken Remainer, was a bold choice of Labour candidate in Hartlepool, where nearly 70 per cent of people voted to leave the EU. But the big question is how much of this is down to the leadership? One view is that no Labour leader could compete with the rollout of the vaccination programme – even those close to Jeremy Corbyn admit that this has been an unmitigated success and that is what people care about. Even Starmer has recognised this – he was expecting the Tories to rise in the polls after the rollout.
“The sleaze investigation could get to a point where it might damage Boris Johnson,” says one advisor. “But right now people don’t seem to care. You can’t compete with a national vaccination programme. And Boris Johnson is not seen a normal Tory – Keir is running against a Teflon politician, which is an extraordinary position to be in.” Tory bashing only gets you so far, especially since David Cameron’s modernisation of the party, ending the era of it being “the nasty party”.
Others are more damning. “If Keir is not careful, Labour is on the path to mortal decline,” is one view. “People can be nostalgic about their attachment to the party but you can’t take votes for granted. Left/Right politics is evolving and I can’t see how the party is staying relevant, especially as we come out of lockdown and people lose their jobs.”
Hartlepool has been a safe Labour seat since 1974 (with many on the left of the party pointing out that Corbyn held it) and now the taboo topic that is being raised tentatively inside Labour is, to what extent is it realistic to win back the voters who used to vote Labour? The flipside of the Hartlepool result is that London is now safely Labour (a radical shift from five years ago) – does this mean that the natural supporters of the party have changed? Are the areas to focus on now places like Watford, Milton Keynes and Bedford, Tory towns with an increasingly young population who can’t afford to live in London? There is also talk that Keir has to “wrap himself in the Union Jack flag” and show how patriotic the party is, then it will be in with a chance.
The Starmer-sceptic continues: “Starmer was the answer to the question, how do we get rid of the last guy but not the answer to how do we get Labour in government when they haven’t beaten the Tories in 16 years? He has not changed the culture - there are still factions at a local level. He wants to be in power but I don’t know what his plan is; I don’t know what he is going to do with it.”
Some think of Labour’s comeback as a two stage process – comparable to how you had to have Neil Kinnock to get the party back on track so that Tony Blair could swoop to victory. Perhaps if Starmer loses the general election but having made some progress, he may get a second bite of the cherry. Others have compared him to Clement Attlee - “he didn’t shine or inspire but that was a different age, he didn’t have to do TV”.
The shadow cabinet are not firing on all cylinders. Starmer was the answer to the question how do we get rid of the last guy but is he the answer to how do we get Labour in government when they haven’t won an election in 16 years.
Corbyn supporters point out that under the former leader, the standard complaint from the internal opposition was that a decent leader had to be 20 points ahead, but Starmer is not, he is not where a leader needs to be. Corbyn supporters add that he is not used to being under this type of pressure. There are still rifts in the party – on one side, Corbyn supporters (some of whom spoilt their ballot papers yesterday because they didn’t want to vote for “a red Tory”). But on the other side, there is also still a lot of wound and hurt, people were stung by anti-semitism and they will not come back to supporting Labour unwaveringly immediately. Although they are glad that, as one says, “Jeremy, the naked emperor, has gone”.
For now, a reshuffle is expected. It is widely agreed that the shadow cabinet “is not firing on all cylinders”. “They are nice, clever and hardworking but not natural leaders. Many of them are people who were not prepared to put their heads above the parapet during the Corbyn years – they were riding it out – so they lack the qualities you need in leaders; backbone, mettle, bravery, courage.” Hilary Benn and Yvette Cooper’s names have been mentioned as candidates who could be in a new shadow cabinet, which may rile those who are looking to move on from the Blair/Brown era.
For now, Starmer’s position is safe. There is no clear alternative. In the long term, some think Sadiq Khan and Andy Burnham may move back to Westminster. Others think Jess Phillips and David Lammy are ones to watch but nothing will happen soon.
Back in December, Diane Abbott pointed out that to me that “divided parties do not win elections”.
Being the leader of the opposition during a pandemic is not easy. For a long time, Starmer has had to be in supportive mode. But now he has to step up. There is even speculation that the general election may be sooner than 2024 – Starmer has instructed his party to be ready to fight by 2023.
Dr Janice Morphet, a visiting professor at University College London and author of Beyond Brexit, has said: “a good showing at the local elections could encourage Johnson to make a run for an early general election - after a good summer, while booster jabs are being given and before any new variants require further lockdowns later in the year”. Whether that happens or not, Starmer’s next moves will be vital. As even he admits, his party still has “a mountain to climb” to win back voters.