When the unthinkable happened in 1882 and England lost a test match on home soil to Australia there followed a mock obituary in the Sporting Times.
‘In Affectionate Remembrance of English Cricket, which died at the Oval on 29 August 1882, deeply lamented by a large circle of sorrowing friends and acquaintances,’ it read, adding that: ‘The body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia.’
It will be tempting to compose something similar on behalf of the Labour party should it be defeated by the Conservatives in the Hartlepool parliamentary by-election later this week. The most appropriate destination for the ashes would surely be the chichi London neighbourhood of party leader Sir Keir Starmer.
A constituency poll conducted in Hartlepool by Survation indicates that Labour is on course for a spectacular defeat in a seat it has held ever since its inception – even in the Tory landslide of December 2019. A predicted result envisaging the Conservatives winning a 50 per cent vote share, compared to just 33 per cent for Labour, would be truly seismic were it to occur.
Other polls showing similarly catastrophic Labour results could be on the way in other parts of what we once referred to as the ‘red wall’. The pollster Opinium has the Tories beating Labour in the Tees Valley mayoral contest by 63 to 37 per cent. It also shows the Conservative Andy Street way ahead of Labour’s Liam Byrne in the West Midlands mayoral election, with Street potentially winning easily on the first round by 54 to 37 per cent.
If these polls are accurate – or even just in the right ballpark – then a long-term structural political realignment that is devastatingly disadvantageous to Labour is taking place. December 2019 will be seen not as an aberration but as a mere staging post.
But what will have occurred would not really constitute ‘the death of the Labour Party’, just as English cricket did not actually die in 1882. Labour will carry on as a party with hundreds of thousands of members and millions of voters.
A more accurate description of what has taken place would be ‘the theft of the Labour party’ – snatched from its cradle by a bunch of middle-class progressives and inculcated with values alien to those who brought it into being.
It took Brexit for places like Hartlepool, which voted Leave by a ratio of 70 to 30, to fully register how much contempt the modern Labour party has for their animating values. This is a party whose activists are ashamed of their country’s heritage and culture, who consider respect for the nation to be a mark of stupidity, who are pushing for reparations to be paid for slavery, who wish to have no effective controls on immigration, who wish to campaign to rejoin the EU, who see the Union Flag as an affront and whose leader knelt to the Cenotaph-defacers of BLM.
But now voters in the old ‘red wall’ towns have registered that Labour has changed, they show no sign at all of wanting the party back, and certainly do not wish to share it with the pseudo-intellectuals and juvenile ideologues of the modern left.
The Tories could easily squander their newfound support among older and working-class cultural conservatives – they have an unfortunate habit of taking things for granted. Starmer may even find a way to nibble at their ankles and win over less determined defectors. But overall, there is no reason to think a mass return to Labour will occur.
The ‘red wall’ is no more and the remaining ruins are there to be picked over by Johnson at the next election. For instance, Yvette Cooper in Normanton, Castleford and Pontefract, who was saved only by a big Brexit party vote in 2019, appears to be hanging on by a thread.
When you factor in an impending UK economic bounce-back, further increasing an already large Conservative lead over Labour on economic competence, you could easily see the Tories having a bigger win in 2024, not a smaller one.
For the Labour MPs sitting on mountainous majorities in deprived big city seats or culturally radical university ones, this will be far from personally devastating. They will get to carry on protesting and stoking up their grievances – which is after all their stock in trade. But theirs is becoming a party only able to deliver a maximum of 200 MPs, and which no longer has anything in common with the working class. It looks very much as if Hartlepool will go down as the place which confirmed these new terms of political trade.
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