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Can Starmer overcome his Hartlepool problem?

23 March 2021

6:00 PM

23 March 2021

6:00 PM

Labour have picked their candidate in Hartlepool ahead of the rest of the pack. Unfortunately for them, they have chosen poorly. More than that, the candidate himself and the way he was selected have put Labour’s wider problems clearly on display.

For a start, just so we can get it out of the way, the fact that the term ‘Tory MILFs’ was prominent in the news all weekend doesn’t say a lot on its own about a wise candidate selection by Labour. This, in case you missed it, refers to some social media posts Paul Williams was responsible for many years ago that were a little less than politically correct towards women.

Now I feel strongly that people shouldn’t be held responsible for every single thing they put out on Twitter ten years ago, so I don’t have a particular problem with it and I suspect the voters of Hartlepool won’t either. It is the thing the Labour left have seized upon as to why Williams should be deselected immediately, unsurprisingly. But will the story affect activist turn out in the seat over the coming weeks? That’s how it could hurt the Labour party in the end.

Yet we are only scratching the surface here. Next, we come to the fact that Paul Williams is a vocal, blue and gold stars on his sleeve Remainer. This should have, in and of itself, been enough to disqualify him from contention. I mean, I’m as anti-Brexit as you want to get within the boundaries of sanity, but Hartlepool 2021 is really not the time and place for this — particularly for the Labour party.


Having said all that, we still haven’t even got to the two worst aspects about Paul Williams being named Labour candidate for Hartlepool. That’s how bad a choice he was for this by-election.

The worst thing about him being chosen as the candidate for Hartlepool — and what I think is the factor that might tip this contest for the Tories — is that Paul Williams was the Labour MP for nearby Stockton South from 2017 until he lost to a Tory at the 2019 general election. In other words, he is a recycled candidate who is a shining example of the red wall caving in. What a gift this is to Labour’s opponents. I can read the leaflets now: ‘Labour has given you Stockton-on-Tees’s reject — that’s how little they think of you’.

The second worst thing about all this is that Starmer spent a considerable amount of political capital to get Williams installed as the candidate in Hartlepool. Had the leader’s office sat back and allowed the CLP in the seat to pick someone from the town for fear of having a fight with the local party, I would have some sympathy for them. But no, they went to war in order to pick a Remainer ex-MP who lost a nearby seat they clearly didn’t even vet very well. Why?

The answer might reveal how deep the Labour party’s problems run. What if Starmer’s team did all this to get Williams installed because all of the other options were even worse? What I’m saying here is that perhaps the risk of some Corbynista loon getting picked by the local party or pushed by Unite or Momentum or whoever was actually so high that Starmer’s team had to take defensive action.

This is pure speculation here on my part. It’s just that seeing Paul Williams selected as the candidate for the Hartlepool by-election leads me to believe only two things are possible: either Starmer’s people felt they had to push Williams forward in order to avoid a candidate much worse or they have absolutely no idea what they are doing.

Whatever the truth, this whole episode has revealed something catastrophic about the current state of the Labour party. Either things are so structurally rotten that the leadership has to fight constant battles just to keep the roof from caving in — or the current leader, who is probably the party’s last hope for some time, doesn’t have what it takes.

The brightest thing I can say for Labour here is that if Williams sneaks across the line in May, coupled with a reasonable set of results in the local elections, Starmer could get over this rough patch and gain a second wind. But as this selection process has shown, the Labour party will still have big problems to overcome, even if they manage to keep Hartlepool.

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