As expected, Labour performed horribly in the recent Hartlepool by-election. This result is significant, as Hartlepool is considered to be part of the traditional Labour “Red Wall,” referring to the party’s colour and area of Northern England in which Labour has historically outperformed Conservatives for decades. The outcome is also emblematic of a recent shift among voters in the UK. Specifically, Labour is losing its hold on constituencies across Northern England and the Midlands in areas where the populace is less diverse and more working class. These are the type of voters who significantly contributed to the Brexit result a few years back. The same voters who have given Tories a clear victory over Labour in Hartlepool.
The pattern is clear. Labour is struggling to resonate with the working class they once championed, at least where white British populations are the highest and globalization has done little favors. Yet, Labour also hasn’t made an all-out shift towards the new progressive left, more focused on appeals to concerns over social issues such as LGBT rights, structural racism, and gender-based inequality. The party is struggling between courting the next generation of more educated and more socially-progressive voters on the left and remaining true to the working class left who have lower levels of education attainment and are less concerned, if not put off, by the same identity-based concerns of the new progressive left.
Deciding the next step on where to move is a difficult decision. Taking a position on which issues to focus on could possibly put off these new progressives on one side and the traditional working class on the other side. Yet, in spite of this difficulty, Labour must decide where the party wants to go, and this decision has to be in the hands of Keir Starmer now if he wants to keep his place as the party leader.
After Corbyn was ousted from his seat at the head of the party, Keir Starmer was viewed as a charismatic and level-headed choice as successor. He was expected to be a smart politician who ticked progressive boxes, but didn’t come across as too radical. These descriptions actually all appear to be true thus far. The problem? Charisma, level-headedness, and policy knowledge do not equal clear messaging and action. Starmer has all the characteristics of a good party leader, but for Labour to be successful, tough choices and bold action must happen, and they must happen soon.
Whether one supported the Brexit movement or not, the pro-leave side had a clear message and worked hard to drive it home. Whether one supports Boris Johnson, or sees him as a crass, bumbling liar who could use a new barber, it seems to have become quite clear that he has found fans, and party success, in the same constituencies Labour used to view as safe seats. Luckily for Labour, the recent Tory “sleaze” scandal may be putting a dent into nationwide support for the Conservatives. Yet, this silver lining does nothing to address the underlying problem Labour has under Keir Starmer currently. While it has been argued that being boring might be an asset for Starmer, this clearly hasn’t been the case.
Will Labour become the party championing progressive social issues alongside traditional interventionist economic policies? Will Labour seek to “return to their roots,” focusing less on issues of so-called identity politics, instead courting working class voters by showing how public services and economic redistribution can invigorate the middle class? While the decision may not have to be this stark in terms of either or, it will likely have to choose which side to lean towards in terms of not only future policy, but campaign messaging. This has not been done yet, and Labour has been poorer for it.
Starmer said that he would take responsibility for the results of the by-election in Hartlepool. Now is the time for him to take responsibility and make a decision on where the party is going, or Labour will be doomed to languish for years to come.