Why Hartlepool flipped blue
The Labour Party must stop waging a culture war on working class voters.
JB: I originally wrote and published this after the Hartlepool by-election in 2021.
The day after the Hartlepool by-election, in which Labour lost a former safe seat by a thumping 7,000-vote majority, seems a good time to ask why such a monumental shift has taken place. This is not the first time that Labour have been relieved of one of their safe seats in recent times, and there may be more to come.
Holding a magnifying glass over the Hartlepool by-election just gone, several obvious reasons stand out. By-elections are an opportunity for major parties to focus their efforts on a single constituency in a way that isn’t practical in general elections. A consequence is that broad national issues get focused on a small area. Sir Keir Starmer’s recent gaffes have shown his public popularity to not be as high as Labour members might assume. Video footage of a bodyguard roughing up a pub landlord who had just kicked out Starmer spread around the internet, reflecting a less-than-dignified tour for the dishevelled leader. And feeble attempts by the mainstream media to create a crisis out of Wallpapergate fell flat when it became clear it had not made one ounce of difference to Boris Johnson’s popularity. I can only speak for myself, but it seemed like yet another example of elites in the media not understanding the values of the public outside London.
Second is the inexplicable choice of a dedicated Remainer as the Labour candidate for Hartlepool, an area that voted strongly for Brexit in 2016. I suspect this had less impact than people might think, but it does not reflect the decisions one might expect from a savvy election-winning machine. It reflects a party that consists of self-anointed visionaries, frustrated at their inability to impose their visions on the benighted masses. Labour members and voters alike seem totally unaware of the party’s new status as that of the educated, affluent middle class, which refuses to learn from the series of mistakes that its decision-makers have lurched into, one after the other. The choice of candidate for Hartlepool matters less, then, than the broad trend in Labour’s decision-making that precipitated it.
The deeper problem that plagues Labour’s election chances is that its members and supporters do not listen to feedback. Most seem to be too busy waging a culture war against the very people they want to vote for their favoured party. Claims that the NHS can only be protected by Labour, that the Conservative party is rife with corruption, and that we should surrender our sovereign citizens to France, all sound more like scolds by a distant, ideologically driven elite than rousing calls to the masses. Voters do not want to be coddled or to be made safe by people who think themselves their betters. Nor are they impressed by insincere bribes from the same people who slandered Churchill the previous summer. They will vote for people who think like they do, and who will protect the values they hold sacred.
On polling day for the 2019 general election, a Labour activist knocked on my door and asked if I had voted yet. I answered in the affirmative. The polite young man smiled and delivered one of the most patronising election messages I had ever heard. Stoke-on-Trent, he explained to me, needed to support a middle ground on Brexit. I did not ask what such a “middle ground” might consist of, nor did I point out that Stoke-on-Trent was one of the strongest Brexit turnouts in the country. Perhaps I am too polite. But I did leave the interaction feeling like this person held a totally opposing worldview to my own. I felt as if someone I had no interest in supporting was offering me a negotiated peace that I had not agreed to. That day, Labour lurched into one of the worst defeats in its history. As yesterday’s result in Hartlepool indicates, Labour continues to be rejected as long as its most passionate supporters insist on waging a war in which they have already lost vast swathes of core territory, and that no one else asked them to wage.
Insincere words, massaged statistics, and misleading tweets are all part of the dirty war over cultural values. Culture wars are so desperate because they are not just about the pros or cons of particular ideas. They are about the anointed’s whole conception of themselves—about whether they are in the exhilarating role of a vanguard or in the pathetic role of pretentious and silly people, infatuated with themselves.