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Tue 22 June 2021

Keir Starmer’s side must reckon with the reasons why it lost to a party that has had 150,000 people die on its watch, says Sam Bright

Politics is a spectator sport. We all pay our entrance fee to sit in the stands and volley wisdom in the direction of the players. If only they would listen to me, they would perform so much better, 100,000 people simultaneously lament, each with a different opinion.

But the babble of the crowd makes it difficult to think with clarity or to understand what is happening and why. Political debate, particularly on social media, is like a poorly-formed Mexican wave; people are swept along in a rippling tide of groupthink. In the confusion, we eat opinions off the plate of our preferred commentators or political thinkers – clustering in the process.

Such has been the case in relation to the Hartlepool by-election, won this morning by the Conservative Party for the first time in its history – and by a whopping margin.

For all the internal Labour Party jousting about who exactly is culpable for the result, above the fray of political spin the facts seem stark. On the two issues that have dominated British politics in recent years – Brexit and the Coronavirus pandemic – the Conservative Party won the confidence of Hartlepool.

The constituency voted 70% to leave the EU in 2016, and Boris Johnson is seen as the man who ‘got Brexit done’. Stir in the widely-reported ‘vaccine bounce’ enjoyed by the Government, and the result seems entirely normal – even if the margin of Labour’s defeat is a shock.

The Byline Times team debate the reasons for Boris Johnson’s stubborn popularity, on Byline TV

Once Labour had lost these two debates, it stood little chance in a seat that has been shifting right-wards for the past 10-15 years.

The issue for Labour and the country is thus: how has the Government managed to persuade people that it has competently handled the pandemic, when the evidence portrays an entirely different reality?

There is an old, crass cliché in tabloid journalism – ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ – meaning that death and war usually grabs front-page headlines. In this regard, the pandemic has fulfilled all of the criteria of a full-blown crisis: 150,000 deaths from the disease; billions of pounds in public money wasted; rampant cronyism; and a wilful disregard for life.

Yet the Government is immune, it is claimed, because ordinary people see the pandemic as a war and thus believe that their patriotic duty is to support the regime. This argument has some merit, but it neglects the fact that – on all measures aside from the pace of the UK’s vaccine roll-out – we have categorically lost the war.

Indeed, the Conservative Party has been virtually bombproof in recent years, while Labour has been the political equivalent of a piñata. The pandemic is merely one element of this overarching dynamic. As seen in America, and now increasingly in India and Brazil, the impunity of populist demagogues is not inevitable during their mishandling of this pandemic. And war-time spirit is not the reason for Labour’s poor performance.

Take the economic agendas of the Conservative and Labour parties at the 2019 General Election. According to polls, Labour’s headline policies were popular. 73% of voters supported increasing the minimum wage to £10, 66% supported tax rises for those earning more than £80,000 – and so on. However, pollsters found that, when these policies were attached to the Labour Party, their popularity dropped markedly.

Voters don’t support a pay rise for young nurses if it is a policy supported by the Labour Party, yet are seemingly apathetic towards the deaths of these same frontline workers because it has been a crisis managed by the Conservatives.

The Labour brand seems to provoke instinctive doubt, sapping the popularity from otherwise well-liked, progressive policies. If this perception gap is not closed, no amount of dazzling wonkish ideas will reverse the Labour Party’s fortunes.

There are likely many reasons for this distrust and rescuing Labour’s image will not be simple. The unpopularity of three successive leaders (four if Tony Blair’s retrospective nose-dive in public opinion is counted), equivocation over Brexit, bitter infighting, an intellectual and physical distance from post-industrial heartlands, and the right-wing skew of the media are all likely factors.

Labour appears to be a toxic brand and acknowledging this reality will be a chastening experience for its members and representatives, who have in many cases dedicated their lives to the cause. They should, however, walk the bridge between their perceptions of the party and those of voters. Logging off, and saying that nothing can counter the war-time spirit of the Coronavirus pandemic, is not an option.

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