Labour has lost Hartlepool – a seat it has held since its creation in 1974. This is terrible news for the working-class people there and across the country who have borne the brunt of the Tories’ fanatical commitment to using Covid-19 to transfer wealth and power to the very richest.
Combined with what is shaping up to be an equally poor set of local election results, likely losses in at least two mayoral races, and consistently poor polling, this points to a political party in serious trouble.
There are undoubtedly real challenges for Labour in Hartlepool and in many other towns across the North of England, stemming from the devastation of deindustrialisation, the failures of New Labour, and most recently, Brexit. Demographic changes have also splintered Labour’s historic support base.
But we must not forget that in 2017 Labour experienced a huge upsurge of support in Hartlepool, winning an almost 17 percent increase in the vote and reversing much of the electoral decline that took place under Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband. This is true of many seats across the so-called Red Wall.
Starmer must own this defeat, especially after intervening to impose an unsuccessful candidate. Nor is the solution more of the same timid centrist politics that has defined his first 12 months as leader. It has not worked, and it has been the death of a number of social democratic parties in Europe.
Labour’s anti-sleaze rhetoric may have registered but the lack of anything substantial to say about economic transformation has been costly. When Labour was advised by the CWU that policies such as universal broadband and public ownership were popular in Hartlepool, and that Labour needed to embrace economic transformation, senior figures in the party either ignored the message or attacked the messengers. The consequences of this are now being felt.
Yet the result should come as no surprise. Hartlepool has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country and has suffered decades of infrastructure underinvestment. Promising to be better managers of the same system won’t work when so many people have been failed by this system. A change of direction is desperately needed, but the window of opportunity is quickly closing, and it will slam shut if a snap election is called.
We believe there is a way forward to rebuild our party and win elections, by embracing mass democracy and community organising, and bold socialist solutions to the challenges thrown up by Covid-19.
This should begin with uniting the party around a set of policy demands that tackle the problems before us: unemployment, poverty wages, household debt, an NHS at breaking point, the climate crisis.
The motions recently voted on by thousands of Momentum members in our Policy Primary, such as a higher minimum wage and a Green Jobs Revolution, offer a way forward here.
We don’t need a fully fleshed-out manifesto, but we do need concrete policies that convince people that Labour will deliver change and that motivate members to get out to campaign for that change. Embracing community organising must go hand in hand with this, and every CLP should be supported to become an organising hub, as we’ve seen in places like Broxtowe.
But becoming an effective campaigning force will require an end to the attacks on members and the creation of a culture that values their participation. This would mean Starmer accepting that the Left belongs in the Labour Party and will be an integral part of any successful coalition. Yet unlike Biden, Starmer has so far spent most of his leadership throwing grenades at a Left committed to a Labour Government, and in doing so, he has empowered a small minority in the party whose main ambition is to crush the Left, even if it means losing another general election.
If Starmer does want to rebuild trust, he can start by immediately setting out how he intends to honour the ten pledges he made when running for the leadership, which have so far been set aside or contradicted. He can also bring Socialist Campaign Group members into the Shadow Cabinet and end the selection stitch-ups and needless suspensions of members.
If he has no interest in this, then his days as leader are surely numbered.
Whatever Starmer does, at Momentum, we have a responsibility to advance a vision of a better country and to organise for it. Labour may not be the party we want it to be, but it is a vital terrain of struggle that socialists cannot abandon. With its links to the trade union movement and its rich history of socialist struggle, Labour is the best chance we have of delivering meaningful socialist change in government.
So we’ll continue to campaign to democratise the party and elect the best of our movement. We’ll push forward with key projects, such as our Future Councillors Programme and our soon to be relaunched Councillor Network, which in its first six months will focus on developing the knowledge and confidence councillors need to pursue Community Wealth Building strategies.
These projects will take inspiration from local authorities such as Salford and Preston, where socialists have had a serious impact and have been returned to power in the local elections – a strong positive from an otherwise unremarkable set of results.
And as the fallout from Covid-19 continues, it is vital that we actively support working-class communities and trade unions in their and our everyday struggles, as well as organising inside the party.
There is much work to be done in building the foundations for a socialist movement that can truly change the country, whoever leads the Labour Party. Join us, and let’s do it together.