Kenny MacAskill looks at the collapse of Labour’s vote in Hartlepool once a dyed-in-the-wool stronghold of socialism Labour-style. Paul Williams, the Labour candidate in the by-election, said, “Neither Keir Starmer nor I met antagonism on the doorstep, but people did not know what Keir stood for.” Hartlepool is a port town in the North of England, County Durham, a town with a radical left-wing heritage linked to the Durham coalfields. Hartlepool was founded in the 7th century, around the monastery of Hartlepool Abbey. The village grew in the Middle Ages and its harbour served as the official port of the County Palatine of Durham. A severe decline in heavy industries and shipbuilding following the Second World War caused periods of high unemployment until the 1990s when major investment projects and the redevelopment of the docks area into a marina saw a rise in the town’s prospects.
Independence Is the Only Option, by Kenny MacAskill MP
Boris Johnson followed up his breaching of the supposed Labour Red Wall in the 2019 election, with further routs, especially in northern England. The Hartlepool by-election being the most stunning result but there were others, all showing it to be a trend not an isolated vote.
More worryingly for Labour, it seems predicated on long term social and cultural changes rather than just political presentation. It’s unlikely that Jeremy Corbyn could have bucked the trend had he remained leader but what’s certain is that the shift to Starmer failed. What caused it wasn’t political presentation or policies but the changes that have taken place there in the community and electorate.
It’s Thatcher’s legacy bearing fruit for the Tories. De-industrialisation, the smashing of Trade Unions, a call-centre and gig-economy, council house sell-offs and a change in home tenure are all bearing fruit for the right. It’s the atomisation of society and the smashing of solidarity in once solid Labour areas. I recall going to Hartlepool in 1979 as a flatmate’s father stayed there. It was an industrial town which reminded me of Motherwell. I’ve not been back since but I can safely assume that similar hard times have fallen on both.
It was that, much more than Brexit which caused the political earthquake and be under no illusion it certainly was earth shattering. Governments routinely expect to lose by-elections not storm to victory in them and certainly not administrations that have been so incompetent and frankly corrupt.
But it is “Labour no more” in Hartlepool. It’s the same as has happened in the USA where formally rock-solid Democrat areas have shifted Republican. “Blue collar democrats” as the white non-college voters are often defined shifted to the right. I’ve been reading a few books about that shift and it’s deep and profound. For those of us on the left and I include myself as much as Labour strategists, it is frightening.
Much was laid out in Thomas Frank’s book “What’s the matter with Kansas” and a more in-depth analysis of the individuals provided in Arlie Hoschild’s “Strangers in their own land”. The latter book a study of voters in a poor area in Louisiana, itself one of the poorest States. Once a Democrat stronghold it had gone Republican long before it embraced Donald Trump. Those doing so had been union members and often remained poor and marginalised. But they switched and aren’t moving back anytime soon.
Scotland, of course, has endured similar such changes though the constitution has stopped an electoral shift to the Tories. Politics north and south of the border continue to diverge. But where does it leave Scottish Labour? They’re thirled to the union and yet there’s no cavalry riding to their rescue in a Labour Government any time soon. If they can’t offer an alternative to Tory rule, Scotland has no option but to go for independence.
(c) Kenny MacAskill ALBA MP
First published in the Scotsman 13 May 2021