Abandon Ship

In an era of startling novelties, the decline of British Labourism feels like old times. A Labour Party promising ‘a new leadership’ purged of the Corbyn left lost the Hartlepool parliamentary byelection last Thursday to Boris Johnson’s governing Conservatives on a 16 per cent swing. On the adjacent coalfield, Durham County Council slipped from the Party’s control for the first time since 1925. It was one of eight local councils lost by Labour, in local elections which saw the Tories take 36 per cent of the popular vote to Labour’s 29 per cent.

Wales aside, where there was a pandemic-related incumbency bounce for the Labour-run devolved administration, Labour’s ex-industrial heartlands in Outer Britain are one by one abandoning ship. Scottish Labour imploded between 2011 and 2015 as the Nationalists swept the board. It now trails in third place in Holyrood elections behind the unmixedly pro-Union Conservatives. In northern England and the Midlands the red wall fractured along the Brexit divide in 2019, handing Johnson his Commons majority.

To borrow a line from Eric Hobsbawm, the heavy-industrial North East used to be Labour with a capital L. Situated about 25 miles down the coast from the larger Newcastle–Gateshead conurbation, Hartlepool hadn’t returned a Tory to Westminster in decades. New Labour’s Peter Mandelson, a former Hartlepool MP ennobled by Gordon Brown, and lately an unofficial adviser to Starmer’s team, was all over the news on Saturday explaining that Jeremy Corbyn was to blame for its loss. How convincing is that explanation?

Though usually red, Hartlepool has been blue before. A medieval town with a Victorian industrial-port annexe, it was enfranchised by Disraeli’s Tories in 1867 and returned the dockyard developer of modern West Hartlepool, Ralph Ward-Jackson, in the Conservative interest. Afterwards it voted Liberal before turning Conservative in 1924 and Labour in 1945.

The seat reverted to the Tories during the consumer prosperity of the late fifties, but Macmillan threw away his advantage through economic deflation to protect sterling on the currency exchanges. The closure of Hartlepool’s shipyard pushed the local unemployment rate into double figures. Labour regained the constituency only for Callaghan to shutter its state-owned steelworks in 1977 as part of a package of cuts agreed with the IMF to stabilize the pound.

In the early nineties, Blair levered Mandelson into Hartlepool as a safe Labour seat adjoining his own Sedgefield constituency. Discontent broke out in New Labour’s first term after the Bank of England governor, granted freedom to raise interest rates by Brown, agreed with a journalist’s assessment that rising unemployment in the North East was an acceptable price to pay to curb inflation in the South. The chair of the group of northern Labour MPs told the BBC that ‘there are regions of this country that are just being ignored’.

Household incomes in Hartlepool slipped further behind the UK average, and the town’s real unemployment rate stood at 19 per cent. Labour lost control of the borough council in 2000, Mandelson’s election agent among the casualties. A separate mayoral contest was won by a football mascot standing as an independent. Mandelson himself came through unscathed despite two ministerial resignations over corruption allegations. In 2004 Blair parachuted him across to Brussels to become an EU commissioner. Higher public spending had quieted backbench dissent, but Labour was run hard in the byelection contest to replace him by the anti-Iraq War Liberal Democrats.

New Labour is not the beacon of electoral success that Mandelson claims. Through neglect it poisoned its own well. With greater candour than of late, he concluded his 2010 memoir, The Third Man, admitting regret that New Labour hadn’t formulated an active industrial policy before the financial crisis hit.

When the growth stopped we were left without a credible vision of how we would meet people’s concerns about their families’ economic future. This was what made the difference in many of the Midlands seats that we won in 1997, retained in the next two elections, but had now lost. Real disposable incomes were either stagnant or falling by the end of the Parliament. The economy was not delivering sufficient numbers of decently paid, skilled jobs.

One of the local authorities that was subsequently hardest hit by the Cameron government’s spending cuts and welfare restrictions, in 2016 Hartlepool defied it to vote 70 per cent in favour of leaving the European Union. In the pro-Remain big cities, the talk was of pitchforks and a Peasants’ Revolt. Nevertheless, Labour performed strongly in Hartlepool under Corbyn the following year on an anti-austerity ticket, securing 22,000 votes, up from 14,000 under Miliband. In 2019, by contrast, once the Party had strapped Corbyn to a policy of reneging on the referendum verdict, the Conservatives would probably have carried the seat if it hadn’t been for competition on the right from Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party.

‘Hartlepool has always been a working-class town. But it is not a working-class Labour Party anymore’, a first-time Tory voter tells a delighted Telegraph. Only 2 per cent of Labour’s 2017 parliamentary intake came direct from manual occupations while 12 per cent had previously worked as trade-union officials. The larger part consisted of Party workers (38 per cent) and professionals (19 per cent). What was once the Party of Handworkers and Brainworkers, in the Fabian Sidney Webb’s rendering, now overwhelmingly comprises the latter alone.

And what brains. Writing in Unherd last September, Labour life peer Maurice Glasman, founder of the socially conservative Blue Labour tendency, hailed Starmer’s flag-and-families party-conference speech as an electoral game-changer, ‘the first time that Starmer could speak directly to the nation about who he was and what he stood for’:

Labour is under no pressure to develop a manifesto, it needed a general direction of travel, a sense of mission and of vision. A sense of the temper of the man who was leading it. And he seized the opportunity to express the ethics of a profoundly conservative person in a way that no member of the Conservative front bench possibly could.

The complacent Tories were in for a shock, Glasman argued. ‘They can no longer draw comfort from the quiet man who sits alone before them.’ Starmer was poised to take back Labour’s working-class heartlands by tapping their social patriotism. ‘I cannot stress it enough. If you don’t love your country, the red wall will never love you’, explained political consultant Deborah Mattinson, author of Beyond the Red Wall (2020), a focus group compendium. In her own speech to conference, shadow chancellor Anneliese Dodds pledged Labour to fiscal restraint in contrast to the ‘cavalier’ Rishi Sunak.

Hartlepool represented the first electoral test of this new ideological brew. The campaign was run from on high. Labour’s candidate, Paul Williams, who lost his seat in nearby Stockton in the last election, was reportedly handpicked by Jenny Chapman, Starmer’s political secretary, who lost her own seat in Darlington in 2019. Starmer nominated her for a peerage last year. The Northern Echo characterised Williams as ‘an avid Remainer and second-referendum campaigner’. As if to compensate, Labour headquarters in London were ‘obsessed’ by Union Jacks and the Cross of St. George, a local organiser has complained to the Guardian. ‘There was no fleshing out what the flag means, or what policies have changed because we’re now patriotic. It was just: bung a flag up.’

Meanwhile the Tories, led locally by the 34-year-old mayor of Tees Valley, Ben Houchen, focussed on economic development. A latter-day Ralph Ward-Jackson, generously backed by a sympathetic Treasury, Houchen has nationalized the struggling local airport and obtained Free Port tax status for Teesside in a bid to attract corporate investment that he says ‘previously would have wandered off to Holland or Germany’.

On election day, Labour attracted just 9,000 votes, barely half the Conservative total, whose candidate, Jill Mortimer, took 52 per cent of the vote. Houchen secured his own re-election with 73 per cent. The conclusion is obvious: Hartlepool was a defeat for the right in which the right was represented by the leaders of the Labour Party.

Writing in the weekend edition of the Financial Times – more aggressively neo-Blairite than ever under editor Roula Khalaf – Mandelson demands that a sectional mass membership and ‘hard left’ trade-union affiliates be expelled from Labour’s governing counsels. ‘Starmer needs to wipe the slate clean’, he insists. An unnamed party source briefed that the leadership will ‘accelerate the programme of change in our Party’.

In a botched reshuffle, Starmer has appointed as his new shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves, an anti-welfare veteran of the Miliband frontbench. Behind the scenes, Deborah Mattinson has been brought in as director of strategy where she joins head of policy Claire Ainsley, author of The New Working Class (2018), overconfidently subtitled How to Win Hearts, Minds and Votes.  

Labour hasn’t won a general election since the 2008 financial crisis. Is its decline terminal, or will Mattinson and Ainsley ultimately succeed in producing political affinities with estranged working-class supporters under laboratory conditions? Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system props up the debilities of the established parties, as the Conservatives showed after their rout in 1997. Labour remains strong in the big cities where voters have nowhere else to go. The Lib Dems have yet to recover face from the Cameron coalition and the Greens are only just beginning to break through, buoyed by disillusioned Corbynites.

Unless things worsen still further, the Parliamentary Labour Party may yet keep Starmer on as a placeholder against the left until after the next general election. A second northern by-election lies on the immediate horizon, however. No two constituencies are exactly alike, but Labour’s majority in Batley and Spen is under 4,000, and another Tory gain would really set the cat among the pigeons.

Read on: Tom Hazeldine, ‘Revolt of the Rustbelt’, NLR 105.