It seems the Tories have a better idea of why they won last week’s Hartlepool by-election than Labour does. In her victory speech, Hartlepool’s new Tory MP Jill Mortimer said, “People voted for that positive change—for jobs and investment.”
Contrast that with what Labour’s Steve Reed had to say shortly after the result was announced.
“Keir believes we need to change direction and speed up our movement back towards the British people.”
Even Keir Starmer’s sympathetic media supporters are starting to wonder what that actually means. But, said Reed, it “will certainly not mean going back to what took us to our historic 85 year defeat in December 2019”.
Underlying this is an assumption that working class people in so-called Red Wall areas are “socially conservative”. They’re defined by a strong sense of “national pride” and “community values” but also motivated by self-interested “aspiration”.
Labour MP Khalid Mahmood put it bluntly. “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.
“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.”
Other Labour politicians think the same thing—that people in the north won’t vote for Labour because it is too left wing.
The facts don’t back this up.
A poll by Channel 4 asked people the main reason why they didn’t vote Labour in last week’s elections. Only 4 percent said Labour was too left wing and 2 percent that it was “too woke”.
“Bad on immigration” came even lower—at 0 percent.
The most popular given reason, at 14 percent, was “Keir Starmer/leadership,” while 11 percent said they either didn’t agree with Labour’s policies or that its policies weren’t clear.
More ambiguously, 8 percent of people in the poll said Labour can’t be trusted. But this mistrust isn’t necessarily right wing and doesn’t mean an automatic transfer of support from Labour to the Tories.
In Rotherham, the Tories went from having no councillors to 20. But eight of those came from councillors elected as Ukip in 2016, while three of Labour’s losses went to the Liberal Democrats.
In Sunderland, where ten Labour councillors lost their seats, six went to the Tories and four to the Lib Dems.
The Tories have used racism, law and order, migration and nationalism to reel working voters in. In some cases it has worked, but it’s not the decisive factor.
Actually in many cases the votes reflect disaffection and frustration with Labour councils after more than a decade of pushing through cuts on behalf of Tory governments.
That mistrust in Starmer’s Labour reflects a longer term problem—the collapse of the party’s vote over years, beginning with Tony Blair.
Under Blair and Gordon Brown who followed him, Labour haemorrhaged some five million votes. Its share of the vote fell from 43 percent in 1997 to just 29 percent in 2010. It rose in the 2017 general election then fell back in 2019.
Labour’s share of the vote is falling among those on low incomes, and in the most deprived constituencies. These are overwhelmingly in the north and Midlands—areas that bore the brunt of assaults on working class living standards since the late 1970s and never recovered.
They were taken for granted by Blair and Brown, who tried to turn Labour into an explicitly pro-business party that continued to oversee job, wage and benefits cuts.
Yet this still doesn’t explain why some people who may once have voted Labour now appear to be voting Tory.
It’s important not to exaggerate this—there isn’t a swing to the Tories from Labour on as massive a scale as some would suggest.
In the Hartlepool by-election Labour lost 6,875 votes since 2019, but the Tories only gained 3,660.
We shouldn’t assume the Tories’ increase came directly from previous Labour voters either. Much of it will have come from the Brexit Party, whose vote fell dramatically from 2019.
So there are at least 3,215 people who voted Labour in 2019 that either went for other parties this time or didn’t vote at all—and very likely more.
Analyses of recent general elections show the Tories’ vote has increased among unskilled and skilled manual workers, and white collar workers.
This is despite the fact of signs that, in general, people in Britain are to the left of the Tories on most issues.
The annual British Social Attitudes survey consistently shows people’s opinions on tax, welfare and public spending are left of the Tories and the Labour right.
A poll of Hartlepool voters ahead of the by-election showed most back spending over austerity, support renationalising Royal Mail, and like the idea of free broadband.
The fact that the Tories won comes down to the fact that—even though they’ve spent a decade in government—they’ve presented themselves as a party of change. Meanwhile, Labour looks like more of the same.
Brexit was key to this in 2019. The vote for Brexit in 2016 was strongest in those same northern and Midlands areas where Labour’s vote collapsed.
Yet by 2019, Labour’s leader Jeremy Corbyn had given in to the right’s demands to promise a second referendum. People who had been forgotten, ignored or sneered at delivered a blow against those at the top of society.
Labour spurned them while Boris Johnson—falsely—presented himself as on their side by promising to “get Brexit done.”
Now the Tories are building on this with promises of jobs and investment that Labour has failed to deliver.
In Hartlepool, their campaign focussed heavily on the Tory mayor for Tees Valley Ben Houchen. He has promised to buy back Teesside airport,
re-develop the site of a former steelworks and took credit for a proposed new “freeport” in the area.
In reality, the freeport will mean more low paid, insecure jobs. But it’s been presented as the change Teesside needs.
New Tory MP Jill Mortimer says she’ll do the same for Hartlepool.
Labour MP Jim MacMahon, who ran the party’s campaign, seemed to recognise this. As it became clear the Tories would win he told Sky news, “The Tory offer was compelling.
“Look at the investment in the towns fund, the restoring your railways fund, the freeports. And look what the Tories do when you elect them and the Tories funnel more money towards them.”
People may see through the Tories when they fail to deliver what they promise. But there’s no guarantee they’ll turn back to Labour.
The roots of Labour’s crisis lie in decades of assaults on working class people—and its failures to stand up for them.
County Durham—‘How can a condemned man vote for his executioner?’
Labour lost 16 seats on Durham County Council—and lost control of the council for the first time in just under a century.
But while seven of those seats went to the Tories, the other nine went to Lib Dems, Greens and a variety of independents.
Labour’s trouble there began years earlier in 2017, when 23 of its councillors lost their seats. Again, only a minority went to the Tories.
The election came after a bitter battle between the council and teaching assistants (TAs). Labour councillors wanted to fire and rehire them on 23 percent less pay.
Militant and furious strikes by the TAs won them wide support across Durham—and shamed the council.
One teaching assistant told Socialist Worker, “Now I have no one to vote for where I live because the Labour candidate voted against us. How can a condemned man vote for his executioner?”
She’s not the only one. Many people who supported the TAs also felt they couldn’t vote Labour because of it.
Dave Lowden, an anti-racist campaigner in Durham, told Socialist Worker, “There are a certain number of people who feel like that.
“Someone on my local Facebook group posted a list of all the people who voted against the TAs and it was all local councillors.”
Dave and the TA both said this was just one reason for people in Durham to be angry at the Labour council. Despite austerity, the council is pushing ahead with plans for a new headquarters costing millions of pounds.
As the TA put it, “There’s a lot of long lasting anger towards the council.”
Yorkshire—‘What’s Labour done for me?’
Andy Hiles is a former Labour member, and a trade union organiser in South Yorkshire.
He told Socialist Worker that the decline of Labour’s vote there “has been slow and painful” and is “a collapse of trust and confidence”.
“I map election results for the unions,” he said. “Ed Miliband’s seat Doncaster North has been a Labour seat for the last 100 years. In 1997 there was a 22,000 majority. Ed was parachuted in in 2005 and won the seat with a 12,000 majority.
“Last year he won it with a 2,000 majority. It’s not a sudden collapse, but it’s a few thousand votes at every election.
“And that’s not unique to Doncaster North. There’s a similar pattern in John Healey’s Wentworth and Dearne constituency next door.”
Despite this, Andy says the Tory votes in any of these seats haven’t rocketed up.
It’s not a massive increase in support for the Tories—it’s disaffection with Labour.
“After 13 years of Blair the rich get richer and the poor get poorer and the question is, what’s Labour done for me?”
Struggle is the alternative to Labour and the Tories
A crucial factor behind the Tories’ success is that there has been nothing like the scale struggle—strikes and mass protests—needed to stop the decades-long assault on working class people.
This means that people haven’t been protected from the ravages on their jobs, pay and living standards.
It also means that, without the sense that these assaults can be stopped, many people see no alternative to Labour or the Tories.
Boris Johnson and the Tories have survived their deepest crises and continued winning elections because there’s been too little fight to stop them.
If the left and the labour movement want to turn the tide against the Tories, we all have to build that fightback now.