The Labour party doesn’t appear to have understood why it lost yesterday’s Hartlepool parliamentary by-election in a crushing defeat (and looks on course for further significant losses to the Conservative party as the municipal election results start to come through). Nor, judging from media coverage so far, do any of the commentariat.
The significance of the Hartlepool result is hard to exaggerate. This was a rock-solid, northern, blue-collar working-class Labour constituency which had elected a Labour MP for the past 62 years. Now the Tories have won it with a majority of nearly 7,000 votes on a swing of 16 per cent — only the second time in nearly 40 years that a governing party has taken a seat from the opposition.
That huge swing is a massive repudiation of the Labour party. Naturally its leader, Sir Keir Starmer, has come under under immediate pressure to change the party’s approach. This is pointless unless the party understands the full significance of why it lost. At present, there is nobody in the party’s leadership or activist base who seems to do so.
The leadership had put the party’s previous difficulties down to two main factors: Jeremy Corbyn and Brexit. The hard-left Corbyn and his Momentum clique had alienated much of Labour’s working-class vote. Once Corbyn departed, the re-empowered party centrists thought that competent, moderate Sir Keir would re-cast the party in his competent, moderate image and win those voters back.
They also knew that Brexit had done them a great deal of damage. The parliamentary party was overwhelmingly for Remain; but in fear of alienating its working-class voters who were overwhelmingly for Leave, Labour presented an incoherent middle-ground position. It succeeded merely in looking as craven as it was cynical.
Labour’s working-class voters showed what they thought of all that at the 2019 general election. The former “red wall” of hitherto solid Labour northern parliamentary seats crumbled, with many of those constituencies voting in a Tory MP for the first time.
In the 2016 EU referendum, Hartlepool overwhelmingly voted Leave by 69.6 per cent to 30.4 per cent. In the 2019 general election, its Labour MP, Mike Hill, hung on to his seat although his share of the vote dropped by 15 per cent.
Yesterday’s by-election was triggered because in March Hill resigned, following sexual harassment allegations against him which he denies. Yet, despite Hartlepool’s overwhelming Brexit vote, the party installed a Remainer, Dr Paul Williams, to fight the seat.
This extraordinary gesture of contempt for Hartlepool’s vote in the most momentous plebiscite in the nation’s memory suggests two things. First, the party leadership believed that the Brexit issue could now safely be parked as past history. Second, it demonstrated that the leadership just cannot or will not understand or acknowledge the full significance of that Brexit vote.
For it wasn’t just about membership of the European Union. It was about what that stood for: an erosion of the British people’s democratic right to govern themselves in accordance with their own historic culture and traditions, a right which had been removed from them by an entire political class — including the Labour party — which no longer wanted to defend and even seemed to despise their nation and its culture.
These working-class people are deeply attached to their country as the place where they know they share basic values, traditions and assumptions, and where they want to be governed by people they elect who will pass laws reflecting that shared culture and which can’t be overridden by any foreign power. In short, the British working-class is deeply patriotic, and their Brexit vote was an act of deepest patriotism.
Both that and their subsequent general election vote for Boris Johnson, who had delivered their country back to them, were also a repudiation of what the Labour party had become. No longer was it the party that represented them, their interests and their overwhelmingly socially conservative values.
It had become instead the party of the educated metropolitan upper middle-class, which was committed to liberal universalism and trans-national “human rights” law and up-ending basic values such as the traditional family or even what is to be a man or a woman — and which denounced people like themselves as racist and privileged, simply on the basis that they had a white skin. It was no longer the Labour party; it had become the North London Dinner Party.
Yet Labour was pinning its hopes on a leader who embodied precisely that set of attitudes: a “human rights” lawyer who had voted Remain and who actually lives in the fashionable north London district of Camden.
Indeed, all you need to know about Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour party and why it can never win back the decent, fair-minded, patriotic working-class was in the picture the Labour leader proudly tweeted of himself and his deputy, Angela Rayner, taking the knee to the Black Lives Matter agenda.
This is why the party doesn’t get it and shows no sign of ever getting it. There may well be members who disapprove of the extremism of tearing down historic statues; or who think Extinction Rebellion goes too far in causing a public nuisance; or who are appalled at the witch-hunts against those who insist that biological sex is unalterable or who are made to confess to their own “white privilege” — or who find themselves up before a disciplinary panel accused of using racist language for observing that you couldn’t turn on the TV “without some person of a colourful disposition having a moan about something” (yes, really; it’s a moot point which is worse, the intolerance or the illiteracy).
It has been noted before, and is being repeated today, that Labour has been losing working-class support for some two decades while it’s been attracting the young and educated.
The division, however, is far deeper than young v old, educated v uneducated, big city v town and village. The real division is between, in one camp, social conservatives who are committed to defending their nation and its culture that connects them to those who came before and those who will come after them; and, in the other camp, social liberals who think that attachment to the nation is xenophobic, who want to upend its culture and traditions, who despise all those who wish to uphold and defend them and who want to create instead a year-zero utopia.
The Labour party leadership cannot face the fact that it can’t play to both camps in the culture war. But what makes this so agonising is that it’s not just a matter of choosing which constituency it must now decide to represent — working class or upper middle-class — which is difficult enough. The choice is between the people who it tells itself it has been put on earth to represent — the working-class — and the belief system which defines leading Labourites’ entire political and moral personality.
For if they choose the agenda of social conservatism that characterises the working-class, they will go against everything that those who run not just the Labour party but the entire culture — the universities, the media, the arts, the NGOs, the professions — believe defines themselves as good and virtuous and progressive people. It means acknowledging that those whom they damn as“right-wing” and racist and bigoted are actually decent, grounded and admirable.
It means admitting that everything they themselves thought they stood for as worthy and just and true is actually the opposite. It means admitting they are wrong — and for acolytes of liberal universalist ideology, which they assume to be virtue incarnate, any such admission threatens to destroy their entire political and moral identity.
So while the answer to the Labour party’s big question is today adamantly staring them in the face, they will just as adamantly refuse to see it.
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