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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 Services have been withdrawn; the once fine Georgian and Victorian houses are mouldering.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.”

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11 comments

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  1. Michael Taylor

    I’ve come to the sad conclusion that a large percentage of the English voters are stupid. A higher percentage, in fact, than the number of stupid Australian voters. Some achievement.

  2. Phil Pryor

    The old divide was simplified, perhaps diluted, by attitudes of the workers vs. the bosses, but, today’s society is ground down into a rough paste or mix of corporate and finance controlled consumers. It depends on your town, suburb, income, debts, expectations and aims as usual, but many now vote for relief from the overlords, whom you can’t see or touch or get at, (just hang on to a phone for a complaint or enquiry). The controlling class are powerful, everywhere, domineering, profiteering, and, people want some relief from slave labour on their own planttion plot from a detached or indifferent invisible master. Many are hours, a day, away, from serious setbacks and worries. There are few powerful trade unions or other bodies to fight for justice, for rights, for basics, and people are now more vulnerable than ever in insecurities. Voting for “enemies” in the hope of mercy or relief is so uncivlised, but, it has been organised, and organised conservatism and greed in politics, media, corporations, etc, make it the way now and the go forward. (I hate it all)

  3. Grumpy Geezer

    “… 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.”

    The parallel won’t be lost on many.

  4. Michael Taylor

    Wonderful prose. Sounds a bit like something you could have written, GG.

  5. Grumpy Geezer

    BoJo invites more forthright language, Michael. Much like our own fckstick does.

  6. Joe Carli

    There’s something deeper going on…not just in that electorate, but across the English speaking world…a kind of reverting back to seeking a sense of security that was perceived in the fifties and early sixties…a saturation of feel-good (cue “on the winning side”) media that centres on a kind of power to the powerful correctness..and we..the citizen body..only have to let them “get on with the job” and all will be ok…

    I wrote this article about something similar..although it lacks a depth of intricate research and conclusion and is more relevant to Aust’, I believe it touches upon the problem that haunts left-wing advancement..

    Here..: https://freefall852.wordpress.com/2021/05/08/received-pronunciation-received-propaganda/

    ” For this is the “secret” of propaganda…that it is done with a tonal quality of voice so reassuringly familiar to the listener so that the natural suspicions that come with botched pronunciation that tells us the approximate birth-nation of the speaker and creates instant caution to any truth in their words…after all, haven’t we all been warned to be wary of “the stranger”?…so along with the attachment to the comforting accent of spoken word, comes the added security (at least for the broadcaster) of anonymity..for how could one be expected to have confidence in a person that was not of at least one’s own “skin”…be it colour, definition of form and /or familiar characteristic gesticulations.”

  7. wam

    A sad read, dr kampmark,
    But my take on labour’s loss, hinges on the memory of corbyn as still fresh. The fear of having him rule is still strong. Starmer did his best but corbyn, like rudd, is a natural white-anter QED and starmer’s10 commandments are hardly inspiring???

  8. Denis Bright in Brisbane

    A inspiring article from Dr. Pinoy Kampmark. The quote from Birmingham MP Khalid Mahmod captures the new reality of crisis for British Labour in its heartland seats. Labour fared better in London but there were some negatives to the re-election of Sadiq Khan as Lord Mayor

    “The London mayor race has been much closer than many pundits expected, with a Labour source saying there was “no question we are seeing significant impact from turnout and voters believing they could put a smaller party first preference without influencing the election result”.(City A.M.)

    The votes for the Greens (8 per cent) and Liberal Democrats (4 per cent) were wasted votes which kept Sadig’s primary vote around 40 percent to the Tories 35 per cent.

    The shadow of Hartlepool and even the City of London might even hover over Australian democracy.

    The Greens are a liability in affluent inner-city seats changed by gentrification.

    The Hartlepool factor is a challenge in those struggling Outer Metro Seats and once Labor stronghold seats like Capricornia in Central Queensland where far-right populism has captured the LNP with the support of One Nation.

    Watch this week’s budget delivery to see if the British political realities are relevant here. I don’t see this interpretation in the mainstream press but to me the Shadow of Hartlepool is a possibility here. I might have my wires crossed on this issue and of course Australian Labor can take evasive action. Only time will tell and this is what makes the current political scene so exciting.

  9. Joe Carli

    What I believe has happened is that “we” have come a full circle from the days of post WW2 / Menzies era where the important things in life…ie; “Values” overtook what were previously held up as “Ideals”…

    Value is the person’s idea of what is important in life, what is the perceived reality. Ideal is perfect state or condition which a person aspires to reach.

    The right-wing of politics in the West have worked out that “Ideals” can be mocked as the stuff of dreams, while harsh reality can be shown to be both made to happen (through austerity policies ) then made to go away (through pork-barrelling)…so we now have the LNP as both tormentor and saviour ….so they are playing out an almost religious script of being A God of punishment and then THE God of salvation…the Biblical ideal.

  10. Canguro

    Winston Churchill’s on record as saying the following..

    ‘Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.… ‘

    Just saying.

    I’m no fan of the old cigar chomping brandy swiller, but he had his moments, I’ll acknowledge. Bipolar disorder is a bitch and he had it in spades, so I expect he ought to be granted some compassion, at some level, but he was also a bad-ass at many levels of behaviour.

    In respect of his views on the democratic process though, I think he was on to something.

    Having lived in China for a number of years, and by dint of that having experienced the consequences of the phenomenal progress within that country in recent decades, despite the challenges, and having also a highly educated Chinese partner who understands the sociopolitics of her country at a level far in excess of the majority of western commentators, I’m inclined to agree with her that her country could never have achieved what it has if it were had a two (or three, whatever) party democratic process in place.

    Some might argue the contrary and suggest Taiwan as an example. Yes, there is today a ‘healthy’ democratic system in place, but the country was effectively under one-party rule for close to fifty years, until the years 2000.

    China’s history, of course, is one of the succession of empires and dynasties, some far far more successful than others. The Song Dynasty, begun in 960 and lasting until 1279, was the golden era, a casebook example of how to create and run a utopian social structure that benefited all.

    Casting one’s eyes over the historical record of ‘democracy’, one is left with the impression of a rather poor structure that benefits few at the expense of many.

    Revisionism beckons.

    Australia hasn’t covered herself in glory with her dalliance with this type of politics. Perhaps GW and its consequences will, after the inevitable shakeout, provide fertile ground for a rethink about best-management practice of the social, economic & environmental challenges of leadership of a large swathe of land, for the benefit of all.

    Marx, Engels et al may yet have their day.

  11. Lambchop Simnel

    Astonishing, the parallels between little britain and this country this century.

    A corrupt puppet or shopfront run by stooges for unaccountable, shady outsiders from the high finance sector, the ghost of the post industrialisation process in the form of the archaic centre turned rightist and absolutely betrayers of almost uniquely stupid voters.

    And all hope drowned out with the noisy clamour of a neutered MSM crucifying anyone not a neolib zionist stooge while the once notable legal system invents laws protective of the rich corrupt and vicious at the expense of a civil, rational society.

    What a depressing the turn of events, the last decade!

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