We don’t have a complete body yet, but the post-mortem has started. (Credit to The New Statesman’s Stephen Bush for the post-mortem without a body metaphor, which I find very appealing). The Conservative victory in the traditionally Labour seat of Hartlepool is not especially surprising, but the scale of that victory is greater than expected. Looked at in a broader, longer term perspective, though, and it is quite startling.
The scale of the result was not because the Tories did unexpectedly well (most people thought they would hoover up the Brexit Party’s substantial vote), but because Labour’s vote share sank from 38% to 29%. An independent candidate picked up nearly 10%, and that seems to be were most of the Labour loss went – though a string of other candidates picked up about 1% each. That included the Lib Dems who sank back from 4%; they had been in second place no so very long ago.
The first thing to say about this is that the Brexit referendum of 2016 has proved an astonishing political success for the Conservatives, if an unintended one. It has fractured the Labour Party. At first many of their voters went to Ukip and then the Brexit Party. The Tories then undermined and demolished these insurgent parties and scooped up the bulk of their votes. The party has been brutal to its own Remainer supporters, but has managed to keep many of these in tow – though as Hartlepool as on one of the most Leave-supporting areas of the country, the by-election itself does not provide much evidence of Remain-supporting Tories staying with the party. Now that the country has left the EU, the politics of Brexit are much easier for the Tories to navigate. Remainers can still be painted as bad losers, unpatriotic and metropolitans sneering at the working classes, while Remain supporting politicians have no convincing policies to rally around.
But Labour’s failure has deeper roots than Brexit. It is often attributed to the party’s estrangement from its working class base. It certainly seems to be true that what might be called “traditional” working class voters have been deserting the party for some time. These may be characterised as white, less educated and less physically or socially mobile people, often living in towns rather than big cities. And yet this is a shrinking demographic, and Labour’s hold on the more modern version of the working class voter (living in big cities, insecure job, rented accommodation, often with an ethnic minority background) looks as strong as ever. Labour is also missing out on a substantial non-metropolitan middle class vote, which is well represented in places like Hartlepool. Back in the 1990s these voters used to be called “Middle England”, and were the particular focus of Labour leader Tony Blair. Mr Blair proved very successful at this, but his success was denounced as treachery by many Labour activists. In the end Mr Blair, a consummate Metropolitan if ever there was one, was losing this demographic, especially because of his liberal approach to immigration.
But Labour’s rot turned toxic after 2010, after they lost power, and with the selection of Ed Miliband as its leader. This was about the time that I started this blog, and there was still some engagement on social media between Labour and Lib Dem supporters, before we fractured and disappeared into our separate bubbles. Those Labour supporters proved right about the Lib Dems, and how long-term the damage the Coalition would be to the party. But we proved right about them, when we suggested that Labour neglected Middle England at its peril. This was denied furiously. Labour supporters were convinced that their route to victory would come by consolidating their support amongst “progressives’, including people who had been too disillusioned to vote previously. They did not need to convince people who had voted Tory to change their minds; the collapse in the Lib Dem vote would be to their benefit. Tory and Lib Dem hating became a signature theme, along with increasingly shrill condemnations of “austerity”.
In fact at the next election in 2015 Labour succeeded in winning the Conservatives a majority in their own right, by scaring many Lib Dem voters into their arms, and by undermining the Lib Dems in Tory facing seats. That, of course, is not how Labour activists saw it, and they doubled down by selecting Jeremy Corbyn as their new leader. The relatively strong Labour performance in 2017 seemed to vindicate this. But Labour success was as much due to mistakes made by Tory leader Theresa May as the ability of Mr Corbyn to mobilise new voters. Mrs May still made headway with her strategy of pressuring Labour in their heartlands. There followed a further two years when the party hollowed itself out, ending in the disaster of the 2019 election. Hartlepool has shown that the Tory victory then was no flash in the pan.
A lot of the responsibility for this disaster rests with the two leaders, Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn. But both were elected by the party membership and the membership placed them under particular pressure, though party processes on policy. These processes are usually referred to as “democracy”, which the party prides itself on. The Lib Dems, and I assume the Greens, are just the same, and indeed often criticise Labour for not being “democratic” enough. As you will notice, I am extremely reluctant to use the word “democracy” in connection with the processes by which members of a political party exercise their rights. Political parties are self-selecting groups of people, who can leave at any point, and who may be expelled if they annoy other members too much. Democracy is about broader society and the inclusion of people who don’t have a choice about whether they belong. This is one of the paradoxes of our political system: political parties are an important and necessary part of the democratic system, but they themselves are fundamentally not democratic. The Conservatives are so successful because their members have the least influence over leadership and policy out of all the main parties.
The Lib Dems and Greens have little choice but to give their members a strong say over what their party does and who leads it. They are insurgent parties that need to offer reasons for members of the public to join and stay with the party. For Labour it is different. They aspire to be a national political institution: part of a two-party system which shares nearly all the important political power. The party has an institutional assumption that political parties other than themselves or the Conservatives are a damaging distraction that no politically responsible person should support. But a successful institution of that nature can’t be over-fussy about about political values – it constantly needs to be thinking about recruiting support from any group of voters it can. That’s an exaggeration; the two big parties do have core values running through them. But whereas the Tory Party can dump a large part of its core support (in the case of the Remain supporting political elite) in a drive to recruit Middle England voters, Labour has been unable to pull off a similar feat since the days of Mr Blair. The membership naturally wants the party to focus on people like them; they cannot be counted on to take a cold hard look at the facts. It was the Labour membership, not the leadership, that fought tooth and nail against Brexit. That was seen as betrayal in Brexit-supporting parts of the country, though it did help Labour drive back a real Lib Dem threat in places like London. Mr Corbyn then compounded the trouble by appearing incompetent and unpatriotic – and yet the membership enthusiastically backed him as their mascot, preventing MPs from removing him when they could see all too clearly the damage he was doing.
That membership may now be chastened, and more accepting of compromise. Labour’s position is far from hopeless. They can still win the next election. They have a secure base among the metropolitan middle class and the “new” working class. They have strong support among younger voters, and escalating property values are creating a growing class of people excluded from the Tory dream. The Conservatives are not widely trusted. But in order to win Labour must go after groups of people who normally vote Conservative, and pressure Tories in areas where they had previously felt secure. That will mean taking Labour into places that it is not comfortable about. To date I have not seen any sign that anybody in in Labour’s higher echelons understands that. Perhaps the shock of these elections will jolt them into decisive action.