Tories are crowing after beating Labour in the Hartlepool by-election on Thursday. They—and Labour right wingers—are touting it as proof that Labour has lost the support of working class people because it is too left wing.
In a shattering defeat, Labour's Paul Williams secured just 8,589 votes while Tory Jill Mortimer grabbed 15,529. The Tory majority was 6,940.
It is the first time the Tories have won the seat for 62 years.
This comes after Boris Johnson's disastrous and deadly handling of Covid-19 and revelations of systematic corruption and cronyism.
The result should be proof that working class people are not easily won over by flag-waving and pledges of support for the army and the cops.
Yet right wing Labour politicians reacted by blaming the result on the legacy of previous leader Jeremy Corbyn, more than a year after he stepped down.
And a Labour source could promise only further lurches rightwards. They said, "The message from voters is clear and we have heard it. Labour has not yet changed nearly enough for voters to place their trust in us.
"Labour must now accelerate the programme of change in our party."
Even before the election, Labour leader Keir Starmer was already making excuses—telling reporters that the party had a “mountain to climb” after the 2019 general election.
He means the memory of Corbyn has to be purged with an even more determined shift to the right.
Other leading Labour MPs stressed repeatedly that once people realised Labour is “under new leadership,” their support would return.
In fact, as one Survation poll suggested at the start of the week, Starmer’s leadership was not a vote winner in Hartlepool. Just 22 percent of the people the polling company asked in Hartlepool said they viewed Starmer favourably—and 44 percent unfavourably.
The real cause of Labour’s defeat is much more deeply rooted.
The party’s share of the vote has fallen in every Hartlepool election but one since 2001. It mirrors what’s happened to Labour’s support in other so-called “Red Wall” seats where its once-strong support has been eroded.
Working class people’s living standards have come under sustained assault for more than three decades as industries closed, jobs were lost and wages were slashed.
Hartlepool is consistently ranked as one of the most deprived areas in Britain and has the highest unemployment rate in England.
Labour politicians have either failed to do anything to stop that process—or even overseen it while in government and in charge of councils.
That process fuelled the 2016 vote to Leave the European Union—overwhelmingly a vote to kick against politics as usual, and a vote for change.
This is not a sign that working class people are now right wing and cannot be shifted.
In the 2017 general election, Corbyn led Labour with an unashamedly left wing campaign that accepted the Brexit vote. It was the only time Labour’s share of the vote rose in Hartlepool in 16 years.
Even in the 2019 general election, opinion surveys showed strong support across Britain for Labour’s left wing manifesto pledges.
But Labour’s shift towards demanding a new referendum, with signals from its leading MPs that they would campaign for Remain, was disastrous.
The Tories presented themselves as the ones who listened to working class people and offered change, while Labour represented more of the same.
In the final week of the election campaign in Hartlepool, Starmer belatedly realised that “What matters more than anything to the voters in Hartelpool is jobs.”