By Robin Jackson
The Labour Party was defeated yesterday in the Hartlepool by-election – the first Westminster election Labour has fought under Keir Starmer’s leadership. This was Labour’s lowest vote in a Hartlepool parliamentary election since the Second World War. Up until yesterday, Labour had won every single parliamentary election in Hartlepool since 1959. The fundamental cause of this loss is the right wing political agenda that Labour now promotes under Starmer.
In terms of the number of voters, Labour secured its lowest number of votes since the seat was established in 1974, receiving only 8,589. This also being lower than every Labour vote in the previous ‘The Hartlepools’ seat since the Second World War.
The graph below, of Labour’s votes this century, illustrates the scale of defeat that Labour suffered yesterday.
Labour’s vote in Hartlepool parliamentary elections
In terms of share of the vote, Labour secured its lowest vote share since the seat was established in 1974, only receiving 28.7%. This was also lower than every Labour vote share in the previous ‘The Hartlepools’ seat since the Second World War.
The Tory victory was not due simply to Brexit party voters returning to the Conservatives. There was a direct large loss of votes compared to Labour’s performance under Corbyn. Labour’s vote fell by 6,875 and its vote share fell by 9% from 2019 to yesterday’s election. Overall there was a 16.% swing from Labour to the Tories (2019 to 2021). The graph below shows shares of the vote in recent elections.
Vote shares Hartlepool parliamentary elections
The full results of yesterday’s Hartlepool by-election can be found here.
From victory to defeat – Starmer turned around Labour’s fortunes in Hartlepool
Contrary to the right wing propaganda blaming Corbyn for Labour’s defeat yesterday, the truth is that under Corbyn’s leadership Labour performed far better in Hartlepool than it did yesterday under Starmer. Labour’s vote share in 2017 in the Hartlepool constituency increased by 17% (from 2015 under Ed Milliband’s leadership) and in 2019 Labour retained the seat on a higher vote share than achieved in 2015.
Since Starmer became Labour Leader the policy framework set by Corbyn, based on defending the living standards of the population, has been abandoned. Instead the agenda has been subordinated to capitalism’s priorities. So under Starmer Labour has been backing the Tories’ deadly policies on the pandemic and been almost silent about the large scale offensive that is lowering living standards, being ruthlessly driven through under the cover of the pandemic. Starmer’s Labour merely criticises the Tories for the incompetent and corrupt way they carry out their policies – it does not attack the Tories’ reactionary policies.
Labour’s defeat in Hartlepool is not some local by-election isolated event. It reflects the overall decline in Labour support taking place under Starmer. After Corbyn stood down the capitalist and state-owned media ceased their continuous barrage against Labour. As a result the party was able to recover some support during 2020. That recovery came to an end last September, when Starmer was insisting that schools reopened, despite the warnings from the education unions. Labour’s support in the polls has subsequently dropped by approximately 5%, as can be seen in the graph below.
Opinion polling for the next United Kingdom general election – which can be found here
As Labour’s support rose in 2020 the right wing liked to claim this was all due to Starmer, and not due to the ending of capitalism’s intense propaganda offensive against Labour. Since support for Labour started to decline the right wing has been claiming this is nothing to do with Starmer. Back in January, anticipating yesterday’s election results, Starmer’s allies started to attribute Labour’s decline to a ‘vaccine bounce’. At the time there was no feel good factor at all amongst the population, more than one thousand people were dying every single day from Covid-19, the country had entered its latest lockdown, hospitals were overrun, more workers were losing their jobs and having their wages cut.
As 6 May election day approached Starmer has been trying to pin the blame for yesterday’s defeat on Corbyn, claiming that nobody had realistically thought it possible to turn round Labour’s fortunes after the Labour’s general election defeat in 2019. The argument is self-evidently nonsense. Under Corbyn’s leadership Labour won Hartlepool in 2017 and 2019. Yesterday Labour only needed to retain its support in Hartlepool or at least avoid losing the entire 8.8% lead over the Tories achieved by Corbyn’s Labour in 2019. Labour’s move to the right prevented such success.
An electoral strategy that aids the Tories
In the aftermath of the 2019 General Election there was much fake ‘analysis’ of the processes involved in that defeat of Labour. A simple explanation, promoted by capitalism and echoed by the Labour right wing, is that Labour lost in 2019 because of Corbyn’s left wing policies. The claim is made that Corbyn’s opposition to austerity, racism and war cannot win the support of key demographic groups in Labour’s previous strongholds – constituencies like Hartlepool. To win these voters we are told Labour needed to move to the right and essentially track Tory policies. Hence all the ‘Blue Labour’ type policy, with St George’s flags and anti-traveller racism on some Labour literature in this year’s election campaigns.
To ‘justify’ this orientation, a false explanation of the parliamentary seats Labour lost in 2019 was widely promoted. Labour’s loss of electoral support, we were told, was attributable primarily to an increase in the Tories’ support. This is simply not true, as the numbers demonstrate.
Labour’s decline in vote was overwhelmingly not picked up by the Tories, nor by the Tories plus Brexit Party – the hard right wing of British politics. The parties whose vote share more significantly increased were the pro-Remain socially liberal parties. As can be seen in the graph below, Labour’s UK vote share fell by 7.9% (from 2017 to 2019). Together the vote share increases of the Lib Dems, Greens and SNP added up to 6.1%, whereas the Tories and Brexit Party increases added up to just 1.5%.
Change in vote share between 2017 and 2019 UK General Elections (%)
The right wing chooses to ignore the overall change in votes that took place as it does not support its conclusions. By putting forward just partial facts, like the number of seats a party gained, or ignoring the votes secured by all other parties than Labour and the Tories, it is easier to advance the false theory that Labour’s loss in 2019 was primarily due to the Tories’ advance. This is the type of ‘analysis’ put forward by Starmer’s supporters who assembled the Labour Together report, which has had some influence in Labour circles.
Lessons from Europe
Since capitalism’s austerity offensive was launched following the 2008 financial crash, social democratic parties across Europe, pursuing a similar right-wing strategy to Starmer, have experienced huge declines in support. Right wing social democracy, in accepting the attacks on people’s living standards, is being driven back and in some cases has been eliminated from mainstream politics.
- Most spectacular is the situation in Greece, where the vote share of the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) was in the range 35 to 45% from 1981 to 2009, then collapsed to 12.3% in 2012 and further to 4.7% in 2015. Since then it has not stood as an independent party in general elections but as part of an alliance with other parties – these alliances have secured less than 10% of the vote.
- In France, the Socialist Party (PS) was one of the main political parties from the 1970s to 2012, securing from 16% to 43% in the first round of presidential elections. In 2012 it took 28.6% of the vote, but this collapsed to 6.4% in the 2017 first round. It is not a serious contender for the 2022 presidential election, recording less than 10% in opinion polls.
- In the Netherlands, the Labour Party (PvdA), which between 1946 and 2012 always secured a vote share between 15% and 34% at general elections, has since seen its vote collapse. In the March 2021 general election it only took 5.7%, similar to its 2017 vote – a sharp decline from 24.8% in 2012.
- In Germany, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), which from 1960 to 2005 always secured between 30% and 49% in the constituency vote at federal elections, has seen its vote decline after 2008. In 2017 it only secured 20.5% – its lowest vote since 1945. In advance of this September’s federal election the SPD is currently only recording about 15% in opinion polls.
- The Italian Socialist Party (PSI), British Labour’s sister party in Italy, stood in the last general election (2018) as part of an alliance with other parties that only secured 0.6% of the vote – no MPs were elected.
- Only in Spain and Portugal, where the main social democratic parties have been in coalition government with anti-austerity parties to their left, has the social democratic vote held up.
- In the last Spanish general election in November 2019, the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) secured 28%. It is in a coalition government with Podemos which secured 12.8%.
- In Portugal, the Socialist Party (PS) secured 36.4% of the 2019 vote and is in a coalition government with the Left Bloc on 9.5%.
Since the 2008 financial crash there have been widespread attacks on the living standards of the population across Europe. Those attacks have been severely intensified during the current pandemic. Social democratic parties that have accepted all of capitalism’s demands that living standards fall have seen their previously established levels of support significantly decline. Only those social democratic parties that have put up some resistance to these attacks have managed to largely maintain their previous support. Starmer’s Labour is going down the same path as the other right wing social democratic parties in Europe – risking in future even greater loss of support than was experienced at yesterday’s by-election.
Under Starmer, a town in which Labour has held the parliamentary seat for over 60 years has now fallen to the Tories. It was not necessary to wait for this Hartlepool by-election to understand that Labour cannot win with a strategy based on echoing the Tory agenda, as that primarily boosts Labour’s opponents. Such a strategy strengthens the Tories by conferring Labour’s endorsement on the Tory agenda and encourages the anti-Tory majority amongst the electorate (56.4% of voters in the 2019 general election did not support the Tories) to look elsewhere than Labour for an alternative to the Tories.