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Editorial: The Hartlepool result is a direct verdict on Starmer's leadership

LABOUR’S Hartlepool result is a direct verdict on Keir Starmer’s leadership.

The right is already blaming Jeremy Corbyn. Peter Mandelson goes further and blames even the slight shift leftward of 2010, when in Ed Miliband Labour chose “the wrong brother.” 

But the facts say otherwise. Labour’s vote fell at each election after 1997 until 2017, when, under Corbyn, it shot up. In 2019 it held the seat, and whatever the role the Brexit Party played in splitting the “Tory” vote (and it received a smaller vote than Ukip had in 2015) Labour must face the reality that it has lost vote share heavily compared with the Corbyn years.

Factors that led to the Hartlepool disaster were observed months ago.

Labour could hardly have chosen a candidate more indicative of its refusal to listen to local sentiment. 

Paul Williams was a Remainer who defied the 2016 referendum result to demand a rerun, despite “representing” the Leave-voting seat of Stockton South.

Following his unsurprising rejection by voters in 2019, he joined the “blame Corbyn” chorus without acknowledging the role Labour’s contempt for Leave voters had played in defeat.

Yet when a vacancy arose in the even more strongly Leave-voting seat of Hartlepool, the party picked him. 

The choice of an MP recently rejected by the electorate elsewhere will always feed suspicions that the party sees towns like Hartlepool as mere vehicles to assure its favoured MPs of a Westminster perch rather than communities with a voice of their own. And his imposition in a shortlist of one underlined that arrogance.

Williams’s flaws were replicated at national level. Nobody is more associated with Labour’s Remain shift than former shadow Brexit secretary Starmer.

Yet if the Hartlepool result is a vindication of the left’s criticisms, it is not a welcome one. There was no left-of-Labour surge; the dismal showing of the Northern Independence Party shows that entertaining Twitter trolling does not amount to a campaign. 

Starmer’s “strategy” — muting criticism of the government on the big issues and waiting for the Tories to self-destruct — goes part-way to explaining Tory success. His passivity allows the Conservatives to shape the narrative. 

Labour’s 2017 surge was a result of a proactive political message, not one deployed for the campaign, but built up consistently from 2015. 

The compelling vision of radical change didn’t just increase Labour’s vote, it forced the Tories to keep up, formally rejecting austerity and promising major public investment in 2017 and 2019.

Starmer’s refusal to point to how differently the pandemic could have been tackled has allowed them to get away with murder. Britain’s Covid-19 death toll is staggeringly high by comparison with other countries.

Yet a refusal to draw that out means these comparisons are invisible and few blame the government. 

These failings are compounded by the one area Starmer has shown energy — the drive to hound the left out of the party. The result has been huge demoralisation and the loss of tens of thousands of committed activists.

Some are calling for Starmer to resign today. This would be welcome but remains unlikely. 

Despite the purges, the Parliamentary Labour Party remains deeply fearful of the members. MPs know that Starmer had to tack left to win the leadership and that a real left candidate could win any contest.

But we must push for a changed strategy. An insistence on actual opposition to the Conservatives and a revival of the — enduringly popular, as CWU polling showed in Hartlepool itself — socialist critique of our unjust status quo.

Labour grandees will be pushing in the opposite direction. But whatever the party leadership does, the socialist alternative needs amplifying in every corner of the country. 

It needs to be raised in campaigns for jobs and against fire and rehire, in demonstrations against overbearing police power, in the fight against climate change. And it is a job for the whole labour movement.

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