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Crashing Out In Hartlepool: Labour Ills And Teflon Boris


By-election results make poor predictors. The government
of the day can often count on a swing against it by
irritated voters keen to remind it they exist. It’s an
opportunity to mete out mild punishment. But the loss of the
seat in Hartlepool by the British Labour party is ominous
for party apparatchiks. For the first time in 62 years, the
Conservatives won the traditional heartland Labour seat,
netting 15,529 votes. Labour’s tally: 8,589. The swing
against Labour had been a devastating 16%.

The scene
of Hartlepool is one of profound, social decay. Its decline,
wrote
Tanya Gold on the eve of the by-election, “meets you like
a wall of heat.” She noted an era lost, the trace of
lingering memories. Hartlepool was once known for making
ships. “Now it makes ennui.” Male unemployment is a
touch under 10%. Rates of child poverty are some of the
highest in the country. Services have been withdrawn; the
once fine Georgian and Victorian houses are
mouldering.

The seat presented the Conservatives an
opportunity to take yet another brick out of Labour’s
crumbling red wall. Prime Minister Boris Johnson made visits
to back his candidate, Jill Mortimer, hardly a stellar
recruit. Labour was suffering establishment blues. They
struggled to find a pro-Brexit candidate. Their choice –
Paul Williams – was a Remainer who formerly represented
the seat of Stockton, which returned a leave vote of 69.6%.
It was a statement of London-centric politics, the Labour of
the city rather than the locality; the Labour of university
education rather than the labour of regional working
class.

Birmingham Labour MP Khalid Mahmood, formerly
shadow defence secretary, is bitter about the estrangement
and emergence of what are effectively two parties. “A
London-based bourgeoisie, with the support of the brigades
of woke social media warriors, has effectively captured the
party,” he lamented in an article
for the conservative think tank Policy Exchange. “They
mean well, of course, but their politics – obsessed with
identity, division and even tech utopianism – have more in
common with those of Californian high society than the kind
of people who voted in Hartlepool yesterday.”

Energy
had been expended on such causes as trying to pull down
Churchill’s statue rather than “helping people pull
themselves up in the world.” The patriotism of the voters
had not been taken seriously enough. “They are more alert
to rebranding exercises than spin doctors give them credit
for.”

Labour’s campaign in Hartlepool was not so
much off-message as lacking one. “Today,” penned
progressive columnist and Labour Party supporter Owen Jones,
“we saw the fruits of a truly fascinating experiment”.
It was one featuring a political party going to an election
“without a vision or a coherent message against a
government that has both in spades.”

The tendency
was repeated in local elections, with ballots being
conducted across Wales, England and Scotland in what was
called “Super Thursday”. The Teesside mayoralty was
regained by Ben Houchen for the Conservatives by a
convincingly crushing 72.7%, three times that of Labour,
prompting Will Hutton to
see a new ideology
of interventionist conservatism.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer could do little other than call
the results
“bitterly disappointing” and sack
the party’s chair and national campaign coordinator,
Angela Rayner. He is chewing over the idea of moving his
party’s headquarters out of London. The feeling of panic
is unmistakable.

What is even more startling is the
enormous latitude that has been given to Johnson. Despite
bungling the response to the initial phases of the pandemic,
an insatiable appetite for scandals and a seedy,
authoritarian approach to power, Labor voters have not
turned away, let alone had second thoughts about this Tory.
His mendacity and pure fibbing is not something that turns
people off him; the stream of Daily Telegraph
confections from the 1990s on what those supposedly nasty
bureaucrats in Brussels were up to had a lasting effect on
Britain’s relations with Europe. Mendacity can
work.

Last April, Jonathan Freedland examined
the prime minister’s resume of scandals and found it
heaving. He shifted the cost of removing dangerous cladding
in the wake of the Grenfell fire, along with other hazards,
to ordinary leaseholders. He slashed the UK aid budget and
reduced contributions to the UN family planning program. He
delayed lockdowns in March, September and the winter in
2020, moves that aided Britain lead Europe’s coronavirus
death toll. There were the contracts to supply personal
protective equipment to Tory donors and the frittering away
of £37 billion on a test-and-trace programme “that never
really worked.” And that was just a modest
sampling.

The refurbishment scandal is particularly
rich, given the bundle Johnson and his fiancée Carrie
Symonds have spent on their private residence. The public
purse will foot the bill to the value of £30,000, but the
amount spent was more
in the order of £200,000
. With a very heavy axe to
grind, Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s former advisor and
confidant turned blogging snitch, suggested that the
PM’s grand plan was to have that inflated amount covered
by donors. “The PM stopped speaking to me about this
matter in 2020 as I told him I thought his plans to have
donors secretly pay for the renovation were unethical,
foolish, possibly illegal and almost certainly broke the
rules on proper disclosure of political donations if
conducted in the way he intended.”

Johnson, for his
part, claims that he covered the costs himself, though he
refuses to answer questions put to him on whether Lord David
Brownlow initially covered it, and was then repaid. Not
declaring this transaction would have broken electoral law.
The Electoral Commission has not found the affair
particularly amusing, and is investigating the refurbishment
transactions.

The disaster that befell Labour in the
2019 general election sees little prospect of being
reversed. Starmer, generally seen as the more decent chap,
is rapidly diminishing as a chance for Downing Street
honours. As for Johnson, Freedland suggests that the good
fortune of the scandal ridden PM reveals an electorate
“still seduced by a tousled-hair rebel shtick and faux
bonhomie that should have palled years ago.”

Dr.
Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College,
Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email:
bkampmark@gmail.com

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