Blind panic. That’s the generous way to describe the expression etched on the face of Hartlepool’s Labour candidate when I visited the constituency and asked him the most basic question of all: what was his party’s vision for the country? He spluttered, rejected the premise of the question, and threw in platitudes about attracting the best businesses to this County Durham port town by improving child literacy.
This is not to slight Paul Williams, undoubtedly a talented GP rather than a miracle worker who can conjure up a vision for his party where none exists. Tony Benn once said there were two types of politician: a signpost and a weathervane. It would be unfair to describe Keir Starmer as the latter, because weathervanes are at least known to point, however fleetingly, in a direction. Today, we saw the fruits of a truly fascinating experiment: what happens when a political party fights an election campaign without a vision or a coherent message against a government that has both in spades. And truly, it was a bitter result.
We are told we live in an age of post-truth politics, and the cheerleaders of the Labour leadership seem determined to prove it. Everyone is to blame but them. They conjure up the spectre of Jeremy Corbyn, who has not been Labour leader for more than a year. Yet, according to Williams, no one mentioned Corbyn during the campaign, something I also found when I visited last week.
Here are the facts. From Theresa May’s vantage point in 2017, seats like Hartlepool were for the winning. Labour was kneecapped in 2015, and following the 2016 EU referendum and the waning support for Ukip, votes were up for grabs. The Conservatives believed those who voted Ukip in 2015 – and, after all, rejected Ed Miliband’s Labour – would simply march into the Tory column, delivering seats such as Hartlepool. But something else happened: Labour won a sizeable chunk of those Ukip voters, gaining the party’s biggest vote share and majority since 2001. By 2019, many had defected to the Brexit party, but Labour still managed to retain the seat with an increased majority from 2015.
With these numbers in front of us, there are some obvious questions to be asked. If Corbyn is to blame, why did Hartlepool’s citizens vote Labour twice under his leadership and in higher numbers than in 2015? What does it tell us, comparing 2017 to this year’s election, that Tories won only 1,210 more votes while Labour has lost more than 13,000?
If Corbyn had been seen as a legitimate Labour leader, there would be no debate about learning lessons from the 2017 election: why was it insufficient for the party to win? When Owen Smith – Corbyn’s defeated leadership challenger – declared Labour’s success back then was down to the party’s “incredibly popular” manifesto, that then uncontroversial conclusion accorded with the experiences of all his colleagues. Arguably, what unites the 2017 Labour manifesto and the current Conservative agenda is a coherent and bold vision for the country (albeit radically different ones), backed with cold hard cash.
But Starmer’s team has decided there is nothing to be learned or salvaged from the Corbyn era, violating the promises made during Starmer’s election campaign. Rather than a new vision being crafted, the void is being filled by soundbites gleaned from focus groups, echoing and affirming the current political climate – one in which the party doesn’t thrive.
The Tories could have opted to do this during the 2008 financial crash, but instead they built their own version of events and repeated their own message with iron discipline – Labour spent too much, they didn’t fix the roof while the sun was shining – until the focus groups repeated it back verbatim.
Starmer’s team are on safari, knowing nothing about communities they didn’t grow up in, leading to cosplay, caricature and flag-waving, which screeches inauthenticity and nothing more. Yes, the party is the victim of long-term trends – not least as Labour-voting younger people empty from ex-industrial communities, leaving home-owning pensioners predisposed to the Tories – but Starmerism, whatever that is, has no answer to it, unlike the gleefully spendthrift Conservatives.
Labour’s right is now on manoeuvres, but it has nothing to say: its intellectual cupboard is as empty as Tesco’s toilet roll shelves at the start of the pandemic. While the Tories splash the cash, Labour is trapped in a pre-2015 rubric, fretting about fiscal responsibility. Much of Labour’s leading echelons don’t just lack a vision; on economic policy, they are to the right of Boris Johnson’s Tories, and so we ended in the grotesque position of a Labour opposition – a Labour opposition – scuttling around TV studios arguing against Rishi Sunak’s corporation tax hike.
Lacking a coherent analysis or solution, Labour’s right will resort to the only tactic it knows – punching left. It will castigate the traditional aspirations of the Labour party as impossible dreams while the Tories spend, spend, spend, and will demonise anyone who has the audacity to champion them. Where will this lead? Cast your eyes across the Channel, where Labour’s European sister parties are in even direr straits.
Starmer’s pitch was always relational – he was more capable than his predecessor and opponent. His team believed that by acting like the grownups in the room, like the characters in Bugsy Malone, it would all fall into place. But they bet the house on competence – a dividing line incinerated by the NHS’s successful vaccine rollout – rather than a compelling alternative vision for the country. Having lost a seat that Corbyn outperformed him in twice, it’s Starmer who looks like the less than competent politician now, with no values to compensate. Instead of pointing out what he stood against, he should have decided what he stood for. The electorate doesn’t have a clue – and increasingly, it seems, neither does he.