Labour must stop ‘whinging’ after Hartlepool by-election body blow – David Blunkett

AS I write, many of the election outcomes across Britain remain undeclared. But in Hartlepool the by-election result was very clear.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer is coming to terms with the party's heavy defeat in the Hartlepool by-election.

Quite simply a body blow to Labour, but it should have been predictable within the wider context of what has happened to British politics.

Thursday’s vote has profound implications for the future of the UK in two respects. The first – and most obvious – is the balance of power between Conservative and Labour and trying to make sense of completely counter intuitive responses by the electorate.

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The second is the result in Scotland and the SNP drive for a second referendum on separation from the rest of the UK.

North Yorkshire farmer Jill Mortimer's reaction as she is elected as the new Tory MP for the once safe Labour seat of Hartlepool.

Just short of 18 months ago, Labour, under Jeremy Corbyn, took an enormous drubbing. The size of that defeat and the change of electoral fortunes in key parts of the North of England still don’t seem to have sunk in.

In fact, there are those on the left who continue to disavow any responsibility for the consequences and seek, instead, to blame the continuing malaise on those desperately trying to repair the damage.

But alongside this legacy lie other important truths. It is bewildering that Boris Johnson should appear attractive to men and women who would normally be expected to reject well-known dishonest behaviour outright.

Clearly, traditional values of honesty, probity and basic morality do not count so heavily with some as they did a few years ago.

Lord Blunkett is a Labour peer and former Home Secretary.

What else could possibly explain the situation where a government promises to “level up” having spent a decade levelling down? Labour’s campaign relied on messaging from a bygone era when truths of this kind would have had a resonance.

Despite austerity having hurt the less well off more than most, Boris has managed to persuade sufficient numbers of the electorate that somehow it was Labour MPs and Labour councils, and not his own government, which inflicted the damage.

One possible answer to explain the public amnesia is, of course, the billions of pounds that have been allocated to both furlough and business grants. Surely this was a social democratic programme that no previous Conservative government would have dared to countenance?

Just as Margaret Thatcher managed the clever political ruse of running down public services in order to persuade the electorate that privatisation was the answer, so now, 11 years on from Labour’s 2010 defeat, a promise to restore a little of what had already been cut seems attractive. You only have to read George Orwell’s 1984 to see that this is nothing new.

Yet there is something deeper still in what is happening in our politics – certainly in England. Those seats that Labour failed to win in the south of England until the landslides of 1997 and 2001 were made up of men and women with the same general outlook and small “c” conservatism as their counterparts in the industrial north.

The difference was that in the traditional industries, ranging from shipbuilding through steel and engineering and, of course, mining, there was a degree of solidarity which came from shared employment, trade union activity, political education and a shared narrative.

The collapse of traditional employment, such as the closure of steelworks on Teesside occurring under a Conservative government, together with the impact of austerity, changed that experience forever.

In other words, we now have a political reaction: very similar in the Northern towns and outside the major cities as can be seen in the South and the Midlands.

Add to this that there has been a failure to recognise, by the liberal left, that less affluent socio-economic groups have been much more traditionally conservative than is currently acknowledged (and which is why Labour were out of power for large parts of the 20th century). Were Scotland to break away from the UK, the challenge for Labour would become exponential.

So, the frustrations of those of us who want to shout at the television or radio when we hear former Labour voters say “well, they would have all done the same” doesn’t really help.

Rules exist for a purpose. Quite simply, transparency really matters. From contracts for PPE protective equipment to the Downing Street flat, our Prime Minister is contemptuous of the standards that apply to others.

But all of this is a total irrelevance if voters are not listening, or don’t want to hear what you propose.

Over the last few weeks, the domination of the airwaves by Conservative ministers pronouncing on vaccines, and bring forward announcements which could have happily waited until after the election, has squeezed out any Labour messages.

It is true that Sir Keir Starmer, as leader, needs to give the Shadow Cabinet members their head so they have something interesting to say and get it across.

But, in the end, profound seismic shifts in the political landscape require something more than a whinge. Thinking through that “something more” is now the challenge for Labour before the next general election.

David Blunkett is a Labour peer and a former Home Secretary.

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