Under Keir Starmer’s Leadership, Labour Is on the Road to Nowhere

The by-election defeat for Labour in Hartlepool is a damning indictment of Keir Starmer, who has failed to deliver the “electability” his supporters promised. But his leadership is bound to double down on Labour’s right turn instead of drawing the correct lessons.

Keir Starmer meeting with community workers and ex-miners in Pontefract on May 5, 2021. (Ian Forsyth / Getty Images)

Keir Starmer’s great selling point as Labour leader was meant to be “electability.” After four consecutive defeats under three different leaders, the party membership was desperate to see the Tories evicted from office. Starmer and his allies promised to turn around Labour’s fortunes and lead it back into government.

Judging by the results of yesterday’s by-election in Hartlepool, Starmer has taken the party backward. Labour was comprehensively trounced by the Tories, who took the seat with nearly 52 percent of the vote. For the first time since the Hartlepool constituency was created in the 1970s, it will not have a Labour MP.

Labour’s seat losses in 2019 were heavily concentrated in the so-called “red wall” constituencies of northern England, Wales, and the Midlands, where the majority voted Leave in the 2016 referendum. Hartlepool, with a 70 percent Leave vote, fits that profile like a glove. Labour can’t hope to regain power without clawing back some of those lost seats. If the party repeated its performance yesterday in a general election, it would be chalking up fresh defeats instead.

The initial reaction from Starmer’s allies has been to blame his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn and double down on their commitment to bury Corbyn’s political legacy. In reality, Labour is paying the price for the massive, concerted effort of its right-wing tendency to sabotage the party’s election prospects between June 2017 and December 2019. Having exploited Brexit as a wedge issue to break up Labour’s electoral coalition, Corbyn’s factional opponents now find that they can’t just shrug off the long-term consequences.

Treading Water

Under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour won Hartlepool twice. The party’s vote share in the constituency had steadily declined from nearly 61 percent in 1997 to 35.6 percent in 2015, when the combined vote for the Tories and the UK Independence Party (UKIP) was higher than Labour’s. A Corbyn-led Labour Party increased its vote dramatically by nearly 17 percent in 2017, and still held onto the seat two years later despite a sharp decline in support.

This time around, the Brexit Party, which took nearly 26 percent in 2019, was no longer running. But Labour didn’t just suffer from the consolidation of the right-wing vote. Its candidate Paul Williams shed 9 percent of the party’s 2019 vote share.

The Hartlepool defeat didn’t come out of nowhere. There were twenty-five opinion polls between the start of April and election day on May 6. On average, the Tories had a 7 percent lead over Starmer’s party. Facing a government that has been grossly incompetent in its handling of the pandemic and chalked up one of the highest death tolls in the developed capitalist world, Starmer has consistently failed to land a glove on Boris Johnson.

At the end of April, the right-wing Daily Mail published a comment attributed to Johnson by a Downing Street source: “No more fucking lockdowns — let the bodies pile high in their thousands!” Johnson denied making that remark, although it seemed entirely in character for the man. However, there could be no denying the fact that the bodies did pile high in their thousands. Starmer and his team have failed to make political capital out of this, blaming their troubles on a “vaccine bounce” that is supposed to explain the Conservative polling lead.

Colliding With Reality

Let’s compare Starmer’s performance in Hartlepool with Corbyn’s first by-election test in a Labour-held seat, which came at the end of 2015. Liberal columnists like the Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland predicted that Labour would suffer a disastrous setback:

Canvassers on the doorstep ahead of next week’s Oldham by-election report incredulity among past Labour voters at the antics of the men at the top … when MPs or other Labour voices condemn Corbyn and his team, their chief motive is not ideological disagreement. It is their hardening conviction that, with each daily misstep, the ruling circle is making Labour unelectable … Labour needs to rescue itself, not for its own sake — but for the sake of the country it once aspired to govern.

Freedland’s colleague John Harris recorded a video with the pithy title “Oldham by-election: Corbynmania collides with reality.” In the event, Labour not only held Oldham — it increased its vote by 7 percent. This was a small foretaste of the humiliation figures like Freedland and Harris would suffer in June 2017. Corbyn deprived them of the opportunity to say “I told you so” by adding 10 percent to Labour’s vote share, despite having had to fend off a leadership challenge during his first year in the job.

You can’t begin to understand the current shape of British politics without recognizing the importance of that moment. For most people who wanted to see a progressive government elected, it seemed like a very promising development. For the Labour right and its media allies, on the other hand, it was a catastrophe.

Just consider the words of Labour party officials describing their reaction to the exit poll in 2017: “stunned and reeling” — “silent and grey-faced” — “in need of counseling” — “opposite to what I had been working toward for the last couple of years!” Or look again at the clip of Labour MP Stephen Kinnock struck dumb in horror at the sight of his party making gains in a national election for the first time since 1997.

Jeremy Gilbert described the motivations of such professional functionaries very well in an article on the defeats of Corbyn and Bernie Sanders:

What motivates a great deal of antipathy to the left on the part of the Democratic and Labour establishments, from local municipal councils in the UK to the very top of the Democratic National Committee, is the simple and correct perception that the rise of the new left poses a direct threat to the jobs and sinecures of countless centrist officials and representatives. The vast majority of these roles are not dependent upon national electoral success. You can carry on being a Labour councillor in West London, a Democratic official in Philadelphia, or a full-time opinion writer for the Guardian or the New York Times, whoever happens to be in government. In fact, losing your job to some leftie is often a more immediate threat to that position than is the re-election of an extreme right-wing government.

Labour’s right-wing tendency and the liberal commentariat spent two and a half years looking for ways to tear down Corbyn’s movement and depress the Labour vote, recognizing that this was the only way for them to regain control of the party. They grasped at everything they could find, but the most important weapon in their arsenal was Brexit.

Understanding perfectly well that Labour’s electoral base rested on support from Remain and Leave voters alike, they worked tirelessly to disrupt that precarious balancing act and obstruct any soft-Brexit compromise. It was a win-win situation as far as Corbyn’s inner-party opponents were concerned: they didn’t really care in what direction Labour bled support, Remain or Leave, so long as there was plenty of bleeding.

Elephant Traps

Unfortunately for the Labour right — and everyone else who wants to see the Tories removed from office — it would take more than a political Band-Aid to cover up this wound. Their campaign to defeat Corbyn and the Left was successful, but it came with a hefty price. We can observe the stages of this process in the Guardian columns of Polly Toynbee, which articulate the mentality of her cohort so well that they frequently lapse into unconscious self-parody.

In April 2019, Toynbee insisted that Labour had to oppose all forms of Brexit, including the soft, Norwegian-style version (“any Brexit is a bad Brexit”). She dismissed any concerns about the effect such a turn was likely to have on the party’s electoral performance: “Don’t mythologize ‘northern working-class Labour man’ when Brexit is overwhelmingly a Tory disease.” At the end of the year, “northern working-class Labour man” delivered a Tory landslide, but Toynbee had no intention of engaging in self-criticism. She pinned all the blame on Corbyn: “He is a man without any qualities required of a leader, mental agility, articulacy, strategy, good humor or charisma.”

The following November, after Keir Starmer had suspended Corbyn from the Labour Party, Toynbee clearly felt the need to reassure Labour supporters that things were going in the right direction:

Starmer puts no foot wrong, aiming at his targets with a sharp-shooter’s eye, every elephant trap sidestepped. They can’t pin anti-patriotism or anti-security on this state prosecutor. Next they will challenge Labour to vote down a Brexit deal, trying to expose Starmer the Remainer. But that’s easily avoided by abstaining: of course Labour can’t vote down a deal, when even a damagingly inadequate deal struck by Johnson would still be better than none … Labour people should be satisfied for now with the party’s phenomenal recovery from its worst election result in 85 years — and their leader’s growing public recognition.

On the eve of the Hartlepool by-election, it was beginning to dawn on Toynbee that Starmer’s popularity among newspaper columnists had not translated into mass appeal. That didn’t mean she was wrong, of course. If the people had not yet warmed to Starmer, so much worse for the people:

When politicians lose elections, they must blame themselves — but never the voter. Failure sends them into mea culpas of “listening” to seek out the fault within their party. But the rest of us are under no such constraint to pretend the voter can’t be wrong or irresponsible, gullible or pork-barrel bribed, without checking basic facts available at the click of a mouse … voters have no excuse, with Keir Starmer and his frontbench a thoroughly electable, decent and honest alternative compared with the rogues’ gallery opposite.

As far as Toynbee and her peers are concerned, they are the ones who have the power to bestow “electability” on politicians, in much the same way that a Catholic priest has the power to baptize children and exorcise demons. If it turns out that people don’t want to vote for those politicians, that is a minor detail, and certainly requires no introspection on the part of commentators.

Making a Mountain

Starmer and his outriders have repeatedly claimed that he had a “mountain to climb” on ascending to the leadership. This glosses over the fact that it was Labour’s right-wing faction which worked tirelessly to construct that mountain in the run-up to the 2019 election, in the full knowledge that they were doing so. After running a deceitful leadership campaign, Starmer lifted that faction back into its position of dominance and gave its most bilious figures free rein to pursue their vendetta against Corbyn and the Left.

Labour’s self-styled “new management” is still giving this factional vendetta priority over the party’s electoral self-interest, let alone any higher principles. During the election campaign, Starmer went out of his way to insult British Muslims by canceling his decision to attend a Ramadan iftar, supposedly because one of those in attendance had called for a boycott of Israeli dates. A decisive majority of Labour members support the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, and just 3 percent declared themselves to be “strongly opposed” to it. However, Starmer is determined to conflate support for Palestinian rights with antisemitism, since that supplied the pretext for him to sack his leadership rival Rebecca Long-Bailey.

We shouldn’t expect Starmer or his aides to draw any useful lessons from this setback. They have deliberately cut themselves off from Labour’s left-wing current, whose representatives they have marginalized and humiliated at every opportunity. Starmer is now a hostage of the Labour right, who will demand more policy shifts and more purges of the membership. They didn’t care about winning when Corbyn was in charge, and they don’t care about it now, either.

Appeals to party unity or electoral pragmatism won’t cut any ice with this faction, whose leading members would not change a single aspect of their behavior from 2015 onward if they could do it all again. They would happily suffer a hundred by-election defeats for the sake of knowing they had seen off their left-wing opponents. Anyone who wants to arrest Britain’s slide toward Hungarian-style one-party dominance will have to confront that fact.