- The loss of Hartlepool is a shock for Labour.
- There are reasons why this happened.
- Understanding them means politics has to change.
- It can be done.
I have to admit my shoulders slumped when I read Fridays election results. Though this is the first parliamentary vote since the pandemic, and will be seen as judgement of its management, there is far more than this to the result. I remember over my years, several Conservatives suggesting their main role was to keep Labour out of power, indeed I remember one MP saying that he would like the Labour Party destroyed. Is this wish near to being fulfilled?
With the loss of Hartlepool to the Conservatives, a seismic shock by any consideration, we now have to ask ourselves if, despite living in a democracy, if we are living in a one party state? Even if not, the political map is changing – so I have to ask myself the question – what the hell has happened?
The Incumbent effect
The most obvious thing about the election is that the incumbents in Scotland, Wales and England have all done unusually well. The pandemic is coming to an end (fingers crossed on that), the vaccination roll out has been popular and this makes it hard for the opposition to make headway. Though it went against Trump, it has helped Johnson. It seems the some incompetent decision making has been forgiven as an air of optimism and positive pandemic news, at least in the UK encourages voters to give incumbents an electoral pat on the back.
Small town effect.
People in places like Hartlepool, and many other former Labour strongholds across the countries are in limbo. They have lost their traditional heavy industrial and manufacturing industries which put bread on the table, created community structure even if some working conditions were savage. Close ties between working populations, their unions and Labour created the red wall seats traditionally out of bounds to Tories.
Old jobs have been replaced by low pay de-unionised occupations. Small cogs in the “Just in Time’ production and delivery systems, warehousing, call centres jobs, and perhaps those in the delicate hospitality sector. The public sector remains the bedrock of decent jobs, though with increasing levels of stress for NHS staff and educators. Elsewhere, pay is low, jobs are insecure and prospect poor. Unemployment is at 9.4% and hitting the young hardest – 33% of disadvantaged youth are not in a job, education or training. Cash strapped local Labour MP’s and councils get the blame. Despite much of this being driven by Conservative policy, voters see it as time for a change. This has been a long process and indeed Hartlepool would have been lost to Labour last time if it was not for the Brexit Party snaffling Tory votes.
The Conservatives have been long been embedded in rural constituencies, now it seem, in smaller towns too, leaving the cities to Labour. The political map of the UK is a blue sheet with red dots.
Corby supporters will remind Starmer that the Labour party won Hartlepool elections twice while he was leader. Its not that simple. In 2017 he was fighting a diminished Teresa May and her awful campaign. In 2019 the vote against Labour was split by the Brexit party and both were in General elections with a higher turnout. Starmer supporters will claim a long Corbyn effect which was at its most negative in former red wall seats. We have to remember that the majority of voters did not bother to express a view – with a turnout of 45%, the reality is that one in 5 voters in Hartlepool chose Tory and for the whole population of 93,000, the 15,000 who voted Tory achieved this “landslide” with the support of just 15% of the population.
So people in Hartlepool have not turned blue. This means that tiny margins matter and a small but significant number of voters prefer an incompetent but affable failed journalist to a brilliant if starchy barrister. Call this the Cummings effect when small blocks of voters, reached through social media, make big differences. With Labour voters staying at home, and the Conservatives no longer having to contend with losing votes to UKIP or the Brexit party, perhaps the result is not such a surprise after all.
Central Government is putting funds into red wall seats where there are Conservative Mayors and MP’s and Teesside is an example. There they have taken the local airport into public ownership, (!) made Teesside a free port and brought some civil service jobs to the area, bolstering the appeal of northern Conservative MP’s and Mayors who are seen as getting things done after years of Labour stringency. This is achieved by selectively using the Towns Funds to increase political popularity of Conservative councils, Mayors and MP’s and make slogans targeting Labour like: “They’ve down nowt; kick then out!” effective electoral tools. Conservatives take over and cash flows in as a part of the “levelling up” agenda”. More votes next time.
The moment I heard the result of the EU referendum, my first realisation was the problem this posed for Labour and their bedrock of support in Brexit supporting areas. Some Brexit supporters were emboldened by fear and hatred of immigration, that ancient and forever false scapegoat for economic downturn. Labour supported the EU and lost. The Tories did too, but replaced their leadership with Brexiteers to which the disaffected red wall voters have warmed. The anti-foreign theme has worked and left Labour losing enough votes to see the red wall collapse, perhaps for ever.
A flag shrouded nostalgia of a Greater Britain, emboldened by the vaccination campaign and oblivious to the pernicious effects of Empire and our diminishing role in the world seems to have an appeal which masks the harsher realities of where we are. Perhaps this little England approach makes cutting aid to the poorest in the world while spending billions on antiquated defence nuclear systems an electoral winner. The Patriot card might seem to work, but not so much with the emerging young and will hardly wash as our problems mount up.
I remember from my own spell on the factory floor and from studying and working in South Yorkshire during the miners strike that Unions were the glue that provided strength, unity, support, education and in many cases a social life in Red Wall constituencies. They provided the machinery for wage earners to have a voice. Trade Unions are associated with better health outcomes for the population and reduce inequality though collective bargaining. Their demise is not without consequences in terms of the day to day working life of millions of people and their demise has been critical for the success of Conservatives and their backers.
Any study of the history of labour relations tells of the critical role of unions in improving the life of employees. Unions have been a force for good, a source of income for the Labour Party and a continual irritant to low quality employers and free market Conservatives whose policies have intentionally diminished the collective function of unions.
Then there is the internet, and Cummings realisation that elections can be transformed by small swings in key voters, influenced by tapping into the frustrations and cynicism of the significant number of people who usually don’t vote at all. The Brexit campaign manipulated the understandable anger people feel towards the establishment and can be fuelled by targeting online information to specific sectors of voters. It is evident this has happened with the Brexit vote as well as Trumps victory in the US and may be behind the election of Bolsonaro and Modi too. Having a Brexiteer government will win some seats, though it might lose others.
Avoiding the issues
During the election we heard little of how we are going to recover from the pandemic and “pay back” the hundreds of billions of debt incurred. Nor were the crises of heath and social care addressed much, and unmet promises of their integration unexplored. Climate change, or destruction of the atmosphere, seas and land hardly got a look in and when they did were framed in the usual reassuring platitudes. These issues don’t make voters feel comfortable and speaking honestly about them is largely left to the Green party
The vaccination election
Then there is the pandemic. The management of COVID19 has been littered with incompetence which has given the UK a dismal record, both in terms of deaths, suffering and economic consequences. The Government have had well publicised daily briefings for some time which has given Boris Johnson and many of his ministers free publicity. Conservative ministers have become familiar to large numbers of people they would been invisible to if not for the pandemic. We have seen Johnson, Hancock, Sunak and the others literally hundreds of times more than their counterparts in the Opposition. The restrictions, a quiet Parliament, an inexperienced shadow front bench drawn from a diminishing stock of Labour MP’s were by comparison invisible. The political lessons from the pandemic; poverty is unaffordable and public services work, has not been driven home.
The timing of the vaccination, programme has been coincidentally beneficial for the Conservatives. This is despite being developed by public investment and mainly delivered by the public sector. At the end of the third wave, there is a mood of optimism which favours the incumbents.
Democracy with a smaller d.
However you might see the outcome of these elections, I fear they are not good news for democracy. For the reasons above, it can be easily seen that the Conservatives are planning for a decade or more in Government. Blair and Brown are fading from memory. Not a one party state exactly, but approaching it. This means that the government will be emboldened to behave as they wish. The Chumocracy will expand and become embedded as a means of getting things done. More powers will shift away from near bankrupt local councils unless, as I mentioned above, they are in seats strategically important for the Conservatives.
All this of course, is enabled by a largely uncritical, very supportive mainstream media. Even the BBC, under constant threat as public service broadcaster, have to tread carefully as they know they have the Conservative cross-hairs on their back. Debate is not so much stifled as eternally manipulated.
There is more than meets the eye in the malaise of the Labour Party. There is still a desperate need for progressive politics and even with the Tories success, there are many voters who can be convinced that a Labour government would mean improvements in lives and prospects along the lines suggested by the Governments own advisers.
Yet there is no denying the crisis in the Labour party. With diminishing income, it is harder to win elections, with less MPs it is harder to get the talent you need to win, the more you lose, the more likely you are to lose next time. So are we in a one party state? It seems we are heading in that direction. But in another way the world is changing so quickly and may leave Conservatism behind and boost more radical politics of change. Starmer has not represented himself well and though Johnson gets a drubbing every Prime Ministers Question time, he is a more effective campaigner – indeed, that is all he is good at. It is commonly said that no one knows what Starmer stands for – well thats actually better than knowing what he stands for and rejecting it. These are huge possibilities for policy and potential to win votes – lets have a few brief examples…..
Five policies to save the future
Progressive alliance: With the first past the post system, and the demise of UKIP and the Brexit party, the progressive opposition is again permanently split. It is time for some sort of deal with the Lib Dems and the Greens at least not standing against each other to let Conservatives in with a constituency minority. They then might get a chance to build better local democracy, end external and corrupting political donations – yes, state funding of political parties – and bring in electoral systems which enfranchise voters whose vote currently means little. Electronic voting and perhaps Aussie style compulsion to vote, albeit with a “non of the above” option. This can be done.
Tell the Truth. An opposition can be honest about the harsh realities of overpopulation, overconsumption, deregulation, the cascade of wealth to the undeserving rich as well as the various crises we face. There is generally little understanding that climate crisis means food shortages, economic collapse and anarchy. Yet addressing climate change is something the Conservatives are good at announcing, while simultaneously enacting many policies which make it worse. This is our greatest ever crisis.
Levelling out. “Levelling up” has been an effective slogan for the Conservatives, despite their not being any hint of how it many come about. Labour need to take this on. Universal basic income, a decent minimum wage, increasing government income by taxing individual and corporate wealth, tax restructuring, investment in community infrastructure to make cities and towns in particular more liveable and patching up of those huge holes in the welfare net for when times get tough. Parks, tree planting, shared public spaces and facilities improve quality of life and health as well as change voting intentions. Rent controls and more public sector housing will win votes among the young who may never own houses without the bank of Mum or Dad. All this involves work and jobs. Much of the cash to do this is already there, some currently being wasted on nuclear weapons, roads, airports and vanity rail projects which cannot play a part in a zero carbon future. More rests hidden and unused in the vaults of the undeserving rich – it needs to be brought into use.
Food – Farming can not only produce better food, it can become more friendly to wildlife, sequester massive amounts of carbon and provide more jobs. Mixed farms need support and encouragement as well as encouragement of local food growing. The aquatic environment needs time to recover from its battering from overfishing and Maritime Conservation Zones would be a vote winner. More trees and forestry would help. With Ash dieback, we needs to replant 160 million trees just to get back to our previous low level of tree cover. More jobs.
Transport. We need to move away from a dependence on mobility starting in cities where car free life can be envisaged and expanded and create a knock on effect of increasing the number of accessible local facilities and again more jobs. Public transport, so hit by the pandemic, needs to be expanded and made far cheaper, and cycling given urban priority.
I could go on – those are five policies off the top of my head and scribbled down quickly, and there would be much to undo like the Police Bill and the persecution of travellers and van dwellers as an immediate example – there is a place for radical politics and an opportunity for it to grab the public imagination.
The people in Hartlepool have voted with their feet yet more than that, by sitting on their sofas uninspired and not voting at all. The time has never been better to articulate a vision for a less terrible future. Perhaps understanding of how a traditional but much changed former Labour stronghold like Hartlepool can change their political stripes is a start.