Keir Starmer Keir Starmer. Photo: UK Parliament / Jessica Taylor / Flickr / cropped from original / CC BY-NC 2.0, license linked at bottom of article

Labour’s Hartlepool loss and poor performance in the local elections is a decisive rejection of Starmer, and blaming the left won’t save him, argues Shabbir Lakha

The election results so far have been terrible for Keir Starmer’s Labour Party. At the time of writing, Labour has lost 165 councillors and lost control of four councils. The most striking blow for the party came from the Hartlepool by-election where the Conservatives gained the seat for the first time in its history with a 23% margin.

The result hasn’t come out of the blue. The latest polling before Thursday had the Conservatives up to 17 points ahead of Labour. When the CWU commissioned a poll last month which showed the Tories beating Labour, the leadership attacked the union instead of addressing its clear trajectory to failure. The poll, it turns out, underestimated the margin by which the Tories ended up winning.

The result is a decisive rejection of the direction that Starmer has taken the party in. Since becoming Labour leader, Starmer has agreed with the government on practically everything with a strategy, if you can call it that, of “constructive opposition”.

While the government was amassing one of the highest Covid death tolls in the world, Starmer concentrated on attacking the left and ditching the popular policies from Labour’s last manifesto – policies which have only become more popular during the pandemic.

Instead, Labour doubled down on wrapping itself in a Union Jack and handing out St George’s flags. This was coupled with unilaterally parachuting in an anti-Brexit candidate in a 70% Leave constituency, and who was commissioner of a report that recommended cutting critical care from Hartelpool’s hospital, which was then implemented. This was their candidate in the middle of a pandemic.

It’s no wonder Starmer’s patronising and insulting politics which offered nothing to the voters failed to win. While the Conservatives gained almost 4,000 votes, Labour lost close to 7,000; the election had an unprecedentedly low turnout of only 42.7%. Faced with a choice between a government that has failed at every turn in the last year and Keir Starmer’s Labour party, the majority of the constituency chose not to vote.

None of this of course has stopped the Labour right and those close to Starmer from claiming that the party – which for the last year has run with the slogans “Under new management” and then “A new leadership” – actually lost the election because of Corbyn.

Peter Mandelson, speaking to Radio 4 this morning, would have us believe,

“not on one door that I knocked did a single voter mention Brexit to me. The one thing they did raise with me however is Jeremy Corbyn – he is still casting a very dark cloud over Labour.”

His conclusion and that of the Labour right is that Keir Starmer has not distanced itself from the left enough. Apart from this being the only thing Starmer has tried to do, this conclusion papers over the fact that Corbyn held the seat through two elections, in 2017 amidst the biggest national swing to Labour since 1945.

The reality conveniently forgotten by the likes of Mandelson who longs for a return to the New Labour years, is that Labour’s vote in the so-called ‘Red Wall’ seats has been in steady decline since Blair came to power in 1997. In Hartlepool, Labour consistently decreased its votes in every election until 2017.

This points to a larger problem for the Labour party – it has seemingly been in terminal decline since its embrace of neoliberalism. Corbyn was an aberration with his rejection of austerity and war, and one which the party is determined to never let happen again.

So in the middle of a pandemic, the party that spent ten years dismantling the NHS, reducing workers’ rights and which oversaw the biggest drop in living standards in over a century, which has now been responsible for one of the worst handling of the health crisis in the world and has been mired in recent weeks by scandal after scandal, has beaten the opposition – something that should be difficult to do in a by-election in favourable circumstances.

When Corbyn lost Copeland in 2017, the Labour right and the media were lining up to call for his resignation. Of course, Keir Starmer’s loss, in what should be far easier circumstances for Labour, has faced a more timid response. On the eve of the vote, Tom Watson who was Deputy Leader under Corbyn and was part of the coup attempt against him 9 months into his leadership for supposedly being unelectable, pre-empted in Starmer’s defence, “it takes time when you’re in opposition… you can’t do it in a year”.

But while some have been speculating about a leadership challenge against Starmer, the trajectory of the party is clear. Whether Starmer stays or is replaced, the party is moving rightwards – and the reaction to the election results suggests this process is only going to accelerate.

It’s incredible that a government responsible for so much pain and shrouded in so many scandals can be making gains. But as the polls on the government’s handling of the pandemic and on preferred policies have shown time and time again, there is widespread anger with the Tories and an appetite for radical change.

But this simply isn’t being represented by the Labour Party. Whether or not Labour can ever recover will remain to be seen, but what’s clear is that the much-needed opposition to the government that can channel people’s anger will not come from parliament. This can only come from the mass movements like the People’s Assembly Against Austerity and its national demonstration on 26 June.

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Shabbir Lakha

Shabbir Lakha is a Stop the War officer, a People's Assembly activist and a member of Counterfire.

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