So the Conservatives have won the ‘pools, as we used to say of jackpot winners before the advent of the National Lottery.
The Hartlepool constituency, known before 1974 as ‘the Hartlepools’ in recognition of the distinct settlements of old Hartlepool and West Hartlepool, has just secured its place in British political folk lore. It isn’t just the fact of a red wall brick turning blue at a by-election some 11 years into Tory-led governments that is remarkable, but also the crushing extent of the Conservative victory.
While by-elections are often remembered as flashes in the pan – with shock results reversed at subsequent general elections – that is because they are normally won by opposition parties when governments are going through unpopular phases.
For governing parties to win hitherto safe opposition seats in by-elections is very rare indeed. When it happens by a landslide, at the start of mid-term, amid ‘sleaze’ accusations being flung at the PM and against a leader of the opposition who should still be in his honeymoon phase then we are entitled to suppose that something more profound is going on.
Which it is. As I have been arguing ever since the 2019 general election, most recently for Coffee House earlier this week, a long-term structural political alignment is in progress that stems from the collapse of Labour’s traditional coalition of support.
Brexit was the catalyst and Labour’s post-referendum behaviour the accelerant. The traditional working class, to be found in largest numbers in post-industrial towns in the Midlands and the north of England, has come to understand that its values are despised by the modern, woke, middle-class Left which now holds the Labour party in its grip.
Were Labour now to decide that it must tilt drastically back towards the pro-nation, tough on crime, socially conservative, immigration-sceptic, anti-ID politics outlook of its lost tribe of voters, then Keir Starmer would not be the man to lead it.
As the uber-Remainer, the mastermind of Labour’s betrayal of Leave voters, the knee-taker in chief to the Cenotaph-defacers of BLM and the man who sided with whiney Meghan and Harry against the Royal Family, he would have no credibility as a Blue Labourite. Just a slippery London lawyer in a sharp suit trying his luck with a new message.
But were anyone else to lead such a bold change of direction, the consequences for Labour would be equally disastrous. The two-thirds of its activists and big chunk of its voters who subscribe to the full panoply of modernist-Left beliefs would surely slope off in huge numbers to the Greens.
Looking back on the past five years of politics since that epic referendum battle was lost by the political establishment, the key moment can be seen to have occurred when Labour refused to back Theresa May’s pretend Brexit in the Commons. Starmer was one of those who took that decision, believing that even the step of the UK formally quitting as an EU member could be prevented.
Had Labour chosen the other path then May’s deal would have been implemented thanks to the votes of Labour MPs, Labour would have honoured its 2017 manifesto, the Conservative core vote would have been in uproar, Conservative MPs would have split down the middle and Nigel Farage’s Brexit party would have been swallowing up vast swathes of Tory territory.
The rest of Starmer’s Labour leadership is now eminently predictable. He will be a left-leaning ‘in-betweener’. He will have to prioritise his doctrinaire leftist voters, but in a softish way and try to find things they will tolerate him doing that might appeal to some among the lost working class. He will try and put together a strong case that the Conservatives have let down their new voters and were never serious about the levelling-up agenda. He will urge everyone to ‘move on’ from the battles of Brexit. And he’ll end up losing very badly to the Conservatives in 2024.
Perhaps he will win 230 seats. But it could just as easily be 170 as the likes of Yvette Cooper and Ed Miliband find their own bricks kicked out of the ruins of the red wall. For anyone genuinely interested in creating an electable alternative to the Tories as a party of government the Labour party has turned into an enormous waste of time.
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