By-election results make poor predictors. The government of the day can often count on a swing against it by irritated voters keen to remind it they exist. It’s an opportunity to mete out mild punishment. But the loss of the seat in Hartlepool by the British Labour party is ominous for party apparatchiks. For the first time in 62 years, the Conservatives won the traditional heartland Labour seat, netting 15,529 votes. Labour’s tally: 8,589. The swing against Labour had been a devastating 16%.
The scene of Hartlepool is one of profound, social decay. Its decline, wrote Tanya Gold on the eve of the by-election, “meets you like a wall of heat.” She noted an era lost, the trace of lingering memories. Hartlepool was once known for making ships. “Now it makes ennui.” Male unemployment is a touch under 10%. Rates of child poverty are some of the highest in the country. Services have been withdrawn; the once fine Georgian and Victorian houses are mouldering.
The seat presented the Conservatives an opportunity to take yet another brick out of Labour’s crumbling red wall. Prime Minister Boris Johnson made visits to back his candidate, Jill Mortimer, hardly a stellar recruit. Labour was suffering establishment blues. They struggled to find a pro-Brexit candidate. Their choice – Paul Williams – was a Remainer who formerly represented the seat of Stockton, which returned a leave vote of 69.6%. It was a statement of London-centric politics, the Labour of the city rather than the locality; the Labour of university education rather than the labour of regional working class.
Birmingham Labour MP Khalid Mahmood, formerly shadow defence secretary, is bitter about the estrangement and emergence of what are effectively two parties. “A London-based bourgeoisie, with the support of the brigades of woke social media warriors, has effectively captured the party,” he lamented in an article for the conservative think tank Policy Exchange. “They mean well, of course, but their politics – obsessed with identity, division and even tech utopianism – have more in common with those of Californian high society than the kind of people who voted in Hartlepool yesterday.”
Energy had been expended on such causes as trying to pull down Churchill’s statue rather than “helping people pull themselves up in the world.” The patriotism of the voters had not been taken seriously enough. “They are more alert to rebranding exercises than spin doctors give them credit for.”
Labour’s campaign in Hartlepool was not so much off-message as lacking one. “Today,” penned progressive columnist and Labour Party supporter Owen Jones, “we saw the fruits of a truly fascinating experiment”. It was one featuring a political party going to an election “without a vision or a coherent message against a government that has both in spades.”
The tendency was repeated in local elections, with ballots being conducted across Wales, England and Scotland in what was called “Super Thursday”. The Teesside mayoralty was regained by Ben Houchen for the Conservatives by a convincingly crushing 72.7%, three times that of Labour, prompting Will Hutton to see a new ideology of interventionist conservatism. Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer could do little other than call the results “bitterly disappointing” and sack the party’s chair and national campaign coordinator, Angela Rayner. He is chewing over the idea of moving his party’s headquarters out of London. The feeling of panic is unmistakable.
What is even more startling is the enormous latitude that has been given to Johnson. Despite bungling the response to the initial phases of the pandemic, an insatiable appetite for scandals and a seedy, authoritarian approach to power, Labor voters have not turned away, let alone had second thoughts about this Tory. His mendacity and pure fibbing is not something that turns people off him; the stream of Daily Telegraph confections from the 1990s on what those supposedly nasty bureaucrats in Brussels were up to had a lasting effect on Britain’s relations with Europe. Mendacity can work.
Last April, Jonathan Freedland examined the prime minister’s resume of scandals and found it heaving. He shifted the cost of removing dangerous cladding in the wake of the Grenfell fire, along with other hazards, to ordinary leaseholders. He slashed the UK aid budget and reduced contributions to the UN family planning program. He delayed lockdowns in March, September and the winter in 2020, moves that aided Britain lead Europe’s coronavirus death toll. There were the contracts to supply personal protective equipment to Tory donors and the frittering away of £37 billion on a test-and-trace programme “that never really worked.” And that was just a modest sampling.
The refurbishment scandal is particularly rich, given the bundle Johnson and his fiancée Carrie Symonds have spent on their private residence. The public purse will foot the bill to the value of £30,000, but the amount spent was more in the order of £200,000. With a very heavy axe to grind, Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s former advisor and confidant turned blogging snitch, suggested that the PM’s grand plan was to have that inflated amount covered by donors. “The PM stopped speaking to me about this matter in 2020 as I told him I thought his plans to have donors secretly pay for the renovation were unethical, foolish, possibly illegal and almost certainly broke the rules on proper disclosure of political donations if conducted in the way he intended.”
Johnson, for his part, claims that he covered the costs himself, though he refuses to answer questions put to him on whether Lord David Brownlow initially covered it, and was then repaid. Not declaring this transaction would have broken electoral law. The Electoral Commission has not found the affair particularly amusing, and is investigating the refurbishment transactions.
The disaster that befell Labour in the 2019 general election sees little prospect of being reversed. Starmer, generally seen as the more decent chap, is rapidly diminishing as a chance for Downing Street honours. As for Johnson, Freedland suggests that the good fortune of the scandal ridden PM reveals an electorate “still seduced by a tousled-hair rebel shtick and faux bonhomie that should have palled years ago.”