Campaigning in the Hartlepool by-election is reaching its feverish final hours as the Labour party tries to hold onto the seat. There has been sufficient talk of the party losing the constituency for such a result not to come as a shock if it does happen. Indeed, many in the party are already talking as though they have lost, openly discussing what might happen next.
It is clear that while the Left of the party will use this as evidence that Starmer’s plan to rescue the party isn’t cutting through, there won’t – or can’t – be a serious challenge to his leadership from this faction. What we are more likely to hear are calls for a change of message and a higher volume way of communicating it.
Starmer has, to his credit, said he will take ‘full responsibility’ for the result. This is not a given for Labour politicians, who are often content to blame attacks by the media, or the existence of more ruthless campaigners in the Tories, the weather and so on, rather than say that a result is a verdict on them.
But the Labour leader and his allies do seem to be preparing the ground to argue that the Hartlepool loss had been inevitable for a while and that he just did not have sufficient time in the year after taking over the party to turn the tanker around. There is also a line doing the rounds that voter attitudes towards Labour seem to have improved a little. One insider told me:
‘What’s interesting is people in 2015/2017 and 2019 were reporting back raw fury towards Labour on the doorstep which is no longer the case.’
This is quite a hard argument to make: does it really make sense that voters aren’t as angry with Labour as they once were, but they’ve still taken a step further away from the party in this by-election? It will be even harder against a backdrop of local election losses, and potentially disappointing results in the mayoral elections too. What’s the evidence beyond anecdotal reports from the doorstep?
The answer may be that this anecdotal evidence is still useful for Starmer’s standing among his activists, who are not returning from the campaign trail in despair and wondering whether they made the right choice of party leader. But it’s unlikely to make much of a difference to the national narrative.
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