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Keir Starmer

Keir Starmer. Photo: Chatham House / Flickr / CC BY 2.0, license linked at bottom of article

Polling suggests Labour is set to do badly in the elections this week, dispelling myths of the electability of Sir Keir, argues Terina Hine

For those who were wondering just how out of touch Labour and Kier Starmer actually are, you may be about to find out. Super Thursday is almost here, and all eyes are looking to Hartlepool - once a red stalwart, now another crumbling brick in the wall.

This is the first electoral test of Starmer’s leadership. Set against the background of the last year and the devastating impact Covid has had on working class communities, Labour should be piling up the votes, not shedding them. To be contemplating losses against this appalling government is embarrassing, to be desperately hoping to cling on to Hartlepool is humiliating.

Yet the latest Survation poll gives the Tories a staggering 17-point lead in the Hartlepool by-election. Perhaps the poll is an outlier? The poll had a very small sample size, and by-elections can be difficult for pollsters to call when turnout is so unreliable. But even with a big margin of error, to be out by 17-points seems very unlikely.

The dramatic Survation poll may well exaggerate the Tory lead, but along with other polling data, the pressure on Labour and Sir Keir is mounting. Labour is struggling to regain ground in its red wall heartland and it appears that Starmer is not the vote winner he was prophesied to be.

And it’s not just Hartlepool. Even after last week’s sleaze stories, a weekend YouGov poll predicted a 9-point “northern swing” to the Tories. In the mayoral races the Tory mayor for Tees Valley (which includes Hartlepool) Ben Houchen polled at 63% to his Labour rival’s 37% (a significant increase on 2017 when Houchen won 51 to 49%). In the West Midlands the Tory mayoral incumbent Andy Street is also expected to win, polling at 54% compared to Liam Byrne for Labour at 37%.

Northern councils also expect to see Labour losses. Bucking the polling trend is London, where mayor Sadiq Khan’s position appears to be secure.

But back to Hartlepool. The town has been Labour since the seat was created in 1974. In Labour’s 1997 landslide Peter Mandelson became the MP winning 61% of the vote. Mandelson was one of many New Labour MPs parachuted from the south into safe northern seats. As part of the Blair government he cheered on the neoliberal model that has caused so much pain, and ignored the plight of his constituents. Taken for granted for so long, strong northern seats, including Blair’s own former seat of Sedgefield, became ripe for Tory picking. It looks as though Hartlepool will be next.

Since the Brexit referendum, and two Tory election victories there has been much discussion in Labour about “left behind” and “disenfranchised” former Labour voters. Hartlepool residents fit the description. A once thriving steel and port town, it is now the 10th most deprived town in England with one of the highest rates of unemployment and child poverty in the country - 32% of children live in workless households. Voting Labour for 47 years has not served the town well, at least not in recent years.

In want of change 70% of Hartlepool voters voted for Brexit. In the 2019 general election Labour held on to the seat. The Brexit Party candidate ate into the vote share of both main parties, and Labour won with a reduced majority. But this time there will be no Brexit Party and so far it looks as if the Brexit Party votes will transfer to the Tories.

In a recent media interview one resident told of how she grew up believing Labour was the party for working class people like her, but then with Brexit it became clear that Labour was no longer on her side. Labour’s betrayal of Brexit is still playing out. To ignore traditional Labour votersfeelings of betrayal will perpetuate the partys decline.

So what does Labour do? It parachutes in a prominent Remain supporting candidate from outside - born in Canterbury, educated in Cambridgeshire, a former MP from a strong Leave constituency who voted Remain. Starmer tells us it’s OK, Brexit was yesterday’s news. That may be so, but if the Brexit vote was as much about being “left behind” as it was about the EU then it is definitely not yesterday’s news.

Starmer’s attempt to tack dramatically towards the centre has revived memories of New Labour, that period of Labour’s history when the party turned its back on its roots, took post-industrial towns like Hartlepool for granted and became firmly associated in the minds of many as the party of the metropolitan elite.

This morning Starmer mentioned one of his unique selling points was being a good listener - ironic as he is clearly deaf to the pain felt in Labour’s northern heartlands.

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