Hartlepool by-election 2021

by | Published Work

Sir Keir must get genuine to save Labour

The Northern Echo May 17, 2021

IN the political turmoil following Labour’s Hartlepool rout, many in the party fear for its future despite its relative success in Wales and several parts of England. The forthcoming by-election in Batley and Spen following Tracy Brabin’s election as West Yorkshire Mayor has added to the concern: are we in for another Conservative drubbing?

In the short term this requires the highly centralised Labour leadership to rapidly up its game. A party already losing members from its 600,000 high just years ago needs a rapid injection of political nous. Its absence was obvious in the decision first to hold a by-election in Hartlepool and then impose the wrong candidate on the flood tide of Boris Johnson’s vaccination success.

Sir Keir Starmer has many qualities, but not yet those that good local councillors quickly acquire. Beyond not smiling at the camera while fingering wallpaper, one of those qualities is to remember that millions of Labour voters do not drink beer and are unimpressed by a would-be Prime Minister unskilfully pulling and sipping at pints.

Nor has he developed the communication skills Barbara Castle described to me when we worked together in the 1986 Ryedale by-election: “Politicians must use language people understand and enjoy.” He still delivers wooden phrases with the look of a startled rabbit.

Until these tactical skills improve he must be better advised. The team gathered so tightly around him do not come up to the mark. For the future of his leadership and the party they must be shifted, not just to the subs’ bench but out of the stand.

Strategically, he needs to quickly unify his shrinking party membership. The prompt readmission of Jeremy Corbyn is essential if younger party members are not to lose the enthusiasm that brought them into the party.

Sir Keir needs to stop the heavy-handed behaviour of his party officials. There is no possible justification for the peremptory disciplining on grounds of “anti-semitism” of people like my old friend Michael Ellman, an 83-year-old observant Jew and human rights lawyer of international repute.

Sir Keir must also learn from Hartlepool to end the inherited practice of parachuting favourites into “safe” seats. This custom dates back to Hugh Gaitskell’s ally Sam Watson using his Durham miners’ influence to place favoured candidates during the Cold War. It was one subsequently repeated by Durham council leader Andy Cunningham’s union machine in the early 1970s and then by New Labour in the 1990s.

This practice left many Labour voters at the mercy of ambitious young politicos who used “safe” seats to launch their careers – and then never look back. Did anyone photograph Lord Mandelson knocking on doors on the Hartlepool Headland during the by-election or Tony Blair canvassing in Sedgefield in 2019?

The Parliamentary Labour Party is not over-endowed with talent so I don’t expect an imminent challenge to Sir Keir’s leadership. But he’ll only be hanging on to the job if he doesn’t quickly begin to win the respect of members and, even more important, the support of voters by spelling out his vision.

John Booth is a former Labour Party chief press officer and a founder member of the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign. He was Hartlepool’s Genuine Labour candidate in the 2001 general election, standing against Peter Mandelson.