On 6 May, Britain will go to the polls. As other mayoralties, Police and Crime Commissioner, and council seats will be decided by electors, there’s nowhere the gaze of the press, the country, and the Labour Party will be more keenly focused on than the Hartlepool byelection.
In 2019, Labour held the seat with a relatively comfortable margin of 3,595. But this tells only a fraction of the story. With Brexit dominating the collective mind of the electorate, a candidate bearing that mark picked up almost 26 percent of the vote, finishing in a close third place. Now, with Brexit ‘done’ and Covid-19 having relegated the issue down the list of immediate concerns, the Brexit Party’s rebranded Reform UK are much diminished.
Like so many of Labour’s former strongholds, the seat and its community has a unique identity and a proud history. On the edge of Durham and Teesside, it very much feels on the periphery of both – and a million miles from Westminster. It’s no wonder then that voters there chose to ‘take back control’ in 2016.
This is not a throwaway comment about people not knowing what they were voting for, as many in politicos still ignorantly suggest. Rather it highlights a genuine desire of communities like Hartlepool to have much more of a say over their destinies.
A decade of Tory austerity has swept away much of the last Labour government’s proudest achievements, from an NHS with record-low waiting lists to the abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance that allowed scores of children to follow their dreams in education. The past ten years have sadly reversed these gains.
And outrageously, the shapeshifting Tories and their press allies have managed to paint their disastrous decade as successful for people in communities like Hartlepool. Part of this is a result of Labour’s move away from having working-class MPs, and the accompanying turn to a far more managerial class of representatives, out of touch with working-class communities, certainly hasn’t helped.
Moving away from the principles of collectivism and solidarity may well have delivered electoral success for New Labour in the era of the end of politics, but in a new era of crisis with much to fight for, it has hobbled us. It’s ironic that our first electoral test in the new Parliament will take place in Peter Mandelson’s former seat.
As one of the key architects of New Labour, Mandelson is said to have been brought in to advise the current Labour leadership. While the anecdote about his mistaking mushy peas for guacamole is said to be untrue, his supposed assertion that the working class had no alternative but to vote Labour is, as yet, unrefuted.
Until campaigning had been curtailed by the death of the Duke of Edinburgh, I had been due to join Labour’s election operation in Hartlepool. Had many members not felt that Labour had turned their backs on them, I suspect that plenty could have been drafted in to do socially-distanced campaigning in far greater numbers than they currently appear. What we achieved in Peterborough in 2019 could be replicated if members have faith in our project and are given respect.
To win again, we need to acquaint ourselves of the reality of the day rather trying to rerun campaigns of old. Nor can we keep on attacking our own people. This month, the Communication Workers Union commissioned a Hartlepool poll which saw the election as a two-horse race, with the Tories firmly ahead. It also exposed a new phenomenon, something described by the polling firm as ‘Brexit Party amnesia’, where people who voted for the party could not remember doing so.
While the poll spoke of Labour’s woes, it also demonstrated an electorate desperately wanting change. Strong support was shown for a 10 percent nurses’ pay rise, greater investment in public services, and the nationalisation of Royal Mail, and nearly 70 percent of people backed the much-derided idea of free broadband for all.
It isn’t, and never will be, too late to turn things around. The Tories continue to hold together an unlikely coalition, but at some point, that coalition must fracture. For us, it’s never good enough to be not as bad as them. We need a compelling vision backed up by popular policies, and a return to real Labour values.
I will be in Hartlepool next week, campaigning for a Labour victory against this vile government. To our leadership I offer this advice: Labour without the working class cannot win – and it doesn’t deserve to. Pick up the phone and let’s discuss ‘northern discomfort’ – it’s the antidote to the has-beens that the right-wing press want you to listen to.