The scene: Hartlepool in the North East of England, a constituency that voted 70% Leave in the Brexit referendum and historically votes Labour. It also elected a man in a monkey suit as mayor three times in a row. A by-election caused by the resignation of the incumbent Labour MP, who is facing sexual harassment allegations, is imminent.
Enter by parachute: Saudi Paul. Paul Williams, a People’s Vote (Remain) campaigner and recipient of an all-expenses paid trip to Saudi Arabia. After his lavish trip, Williams lauded Saudi Arabia as “modern and progressive”, hence the nickname ‘Saudi Paul.’ The only candidate on the party’s ‘long-list’ of potential election candidates, perhaps a nod to Saudi-style ‘democracy’ in the selection process. He’ll make a fine New New Labour candidate.
The UK Labour Party is now firmly in the grip of its right wing. The Leader, Sir Keir Starmer, has devoted his first year of leadership to purging the left of the party and agreeing with the incompetent and murderous Conservative government. The former left wing leader, Jeremy Corbyn, remains unable to sit as a Labour MP although he is a member of the Labour Party and an MP. The party has lost many thousands of members and is rumoured to be struggling financially due to cuts in union funding, the reduction in membership fees, and money spent on expensive legal battles.
Starmer’s Labour has been floundering in the opinion polls for some time and struggling to offer a vision, or any actual policies, to the country. They just want you to know that they are not the dreadful other guy who articulated a vision of hope to millions of voters. It is probably not a great time for a by-election. However, play things right and it could be a platform from which to finally articulate a positive vision for the post-COVID UK. Spoiler alert comrades, they did not play things right.
Act 1: Election Campaign
The candidate, chosen from a Starmer’s office-approved long-list of one, was not local and as a prominent People’s Vote campaigner perhaps not the obvious choice for Leave-voting Hartlepool. Still, he looked respectable in a suit and was in tune with the leadership’s current (lack of) direction. Labour have held Hartlepool since 1974, how hard could winning here be? Surely it’s a place where anyone in a red rosette will win.
The campaign got off to a lethargic start. MPs were sent to campaign in Hartlepool due to an apparent lack of volunteers from the area. That awful Corbyn never had this problem. Local polling showed that the Conservatives looked likely to take the seat from Labour.
Enter centre stage: the Labour leader and his team of shiny blue suit-wearing minders. The plan was for the leader to be seen drinking pints of beer and eating fish and chips, like a working class person. So he did this over the course of a few days; photo ops holding pints, shovelling down fish and chips by the sea, awkwardly grinning near members of the public. He also embarrassingly tried his hand at boxing, down the coast in Hull. He pawed at a punch bag a few times and joked about wearing boxing gloves to debate the Prime Minister. Just one of the lads. Surprisingly, this patronising strategy did not cut through to voters.
Enter stage right: The Prince of Darkness himself; Lord Peter Mandelson (having been made a Lord for services to evil, or something). Remember him? Disgraced former MP of Hartlepool, stalwart Blairite, had to resign twice for corruption, good friend of dead paedophile Jeffrey Epstein? For some reason, the Labour Party thought it would be a good idea to dig him up and wheel him out during the election campaign.
The ‘guacamole’ in the headline refers to an incident during Mandelson’s time as Hartlepool MP where he reportedly mistook mushy peas (a northern takeaway staple) in a local chip shop for guacamole (I like guacamole but it doesn’t really go with pie and chips). This is not a man in touch with the local community!
I assume that by summoning this Blairite relic the Labour leadership hoped to repeat the success of the early Blair years, forgetting that it is no longer 1997 and Blairism is no longer popular (see UK election results of 2010 and 2015, and centrist parties across Europe). The Third Way is proving to be a dead end. Mandelson once said of working class Labour voters that they can be taken for granted because “they have nowhere else to go.”
The outcomes in Hartlepool and other former Labour Heartlands prove him wrong. Mandelson is now part of leader Starmer’s inner circle of advisors so we can look forward to seeing more of him and his doomed attempts to recreate New Labour. I doubt the electorate will cherish this opportunity as much as we’re expected to.
Interval: Time for a pie and a pint, fellow working class lads. Hold the guac.
Act 2: Election Result and Aftermath
On 6th May 2021, Labour lost the by-election to the Conservatives, who took 51.9% of the vote; a huge increase on their previous 28.9%. Labour immediately sought to explain this catastrophic defeat as a COVID ‘vaccine bounce’ for the government candidate, or due to the lingering demonic influence of previous leader Corbyn. The candidate, Saudi Paul, said that no one had mentioned Corbyn during canvassing, but Mandelson made the opposite point that a lot of people had mentioned Corbyn during canvassing. Hard to know who to trust here.
The by-election took place at the same time as the local council and mayoral elections in England. The results in the local elections were also bad for Labour, it lost a total of 327 seats and control of 8 councils, including Durham County Council which had been Labour-run since 1925. The argument for the ‘vaccine bounce’ doesn’t work here as a lot of council seats were lost to the Greens and Liberal Democrats, who campaigned to the left of Labour. Or at least offered some reasons to vote for them. Where Labour did well, it was due to candidates who had stood for something more than pints and flags, such as Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester.
Starmer said that he took full responsibility for the poor election results, then promptly sacked deputy leader, Angela Rayner, from her positions as Labour Party Chair and National Campaign Co-ordinator. Starmer was unable to sack her as deputy leader because that is an elected position, but I bet he wanted to. Rayner is a better politician than Starmer, not more principled, but more experienced and with a loyal group of supporters in the Parliamentary and wider Labour Party, and she was not having it.
Rayner’s team started briefing the press about the sacking and the poor relationship between her and Starmer. Shadow cabinet members were then sent on TV to insist that she wasn’t being sacked, but rather promoted. In an apparently panicked move from Starmer, Rayner was given 3 new shadow cabinet roles. As Starmer supporters liked to say, at least before he was doing so badly, thank goodness the grown-ups are back in charge!
I can’t see a way forward for Starmer’s Labour Party, in the North or elsewhere. Social Democratic parties who try to tread the neoliberal centre ground are not doing too well across Europe. The term ‘Pasokification’ applies here. In a recent TV interview, Labour’s shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, was asked to explain what the Labour Party stands for. He replied that he could not as it was confidential!
The current Labour leadership appear to stand for nothing. Or if they do stand for something, they’re not about to tell the likes of us what it is. They have no vision to communicate, no principles to uphold. They are waiting on their focus group results. To see which way the wind is blowing. They offer voters a vacuum; a void. With these uninspiring characters at the helm, Labour as a force for positive change is done for.
I’d urge UK socialists to get active in social movements, trade unions, and their communities. Recent anti-racist direct action in Glasgow prevented two men from being taken away in an immigration raid. It is through this sort of action we can effect positive change, rather than waiting for the beige Sir Keir and his shadow cabinet of empty suits to do it for us.