Last month, ahead of the Hartlepool by-election, the Communication Workers Union (CWU) commissioned a poll to test the feeling on the ground in the town.
The results were interesting: voters overwhelmingly backed policies like an above-inflation pay rise for NHS workers, universal broadband, and a fully renationalised Royal Mail. It also showed a big lead for the Conservative Party.
The poll, which turned out to have actually understated the Tory lead in Hartlepool, should have startled everyone in the labour movement.
But instead of taking the findings and offering a positive vision for the future of places like Hartlepool, we were attacked and briefed against by several Labour MPs – who, I presume, also slag off the weather forecaster when it rains. Labour’s right-wing went into full denial mode, attacking into a Labour-affiliated union rather than trying to turn things around.
This approach leaves Labour on the brink of irrelevance. With each passing day, the Tories are building their support in previous Labour heartlands. Despite their obvious misgivings, voters are staying with them because they don’t know what Labour stands for.
I believe that the lesson couldn’t be clearer. Keir Starmer and his team need to fulfil the promises they made when they won the leadership on a left-wing platform last year. This means bold policies, unity in the party, and—above all—standing up for working-class people in the daily struggles they’re facing.
They should be learning from people like Andy Burnham, who defied the Tories and looks set to be crowned King of the North by voters. In post-industrial Labour heartlands like Salford and Preston—places not completely different to Hartlepool—there is no electoral meltdown, and union mayors like Paul Dennett and Matthew Brown are received well by voters because of their positive agenda.
Labour should be learning a thing or two from examples like these, and firmly rejecting the siren calls for a further move to the right. Massive support exists for investment, rebuilding infrastructure in post-industrial communities and levelling up the country.
When the Tory leadership is paying lip service to this vision, Labour abandoning it would be an absolute disaster. It’s time that some people from Labour’s recent past advocating this politics to realise that their moment is gone, and step back.
But it’s also time for the trade union movement at large to step up. The Tories gaining seats is a crisis for our whole movement. The working-class communities who loyally built up Labour across the country down the years were industrially mighty, and had a sense of their own power and strength if only they organised together as one class.
In many parts of the country, Thatcherism sadly killed those industries off, and strong communities were damaged with them. This means that our movement has been weakened over the years. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t still millions of workers in precarious jobs and un-unionised workplaces, who are in dire need of organising to gain the greater dignity they deserve.
The real future for the Labour and trade union movement lies in reaching these people, and once again forging a mass movement of workers who have the power and confidence can shape society in their own interests.
As we come out of the pandemic, the trade union movement has a unique moment to shape this collective agenda. I would urge our movement as whole to move as one in order to deliver a new deal for working people in this country – we can’t wait for a real Labour government, but if we work for building real change in the communities of this country, we might deliver the next one.