Liam Elvish | Content Writer
It was French philosopher, La Rochfoucauld, who once observed that ‘humility is the worst form of conceit’. How fitting a tribute to this assertion were the scenes in Hartlepool the morning after the Parliamentary by-election on 6th May. The city’s new MP, Jill Mortimer, was joined by an enormous, absurdly inflated balloon. And several of his party workers.
The victory of the Tories in this traditionally (since 1965) Labour-held constituency was significant in being the first time a governing party has won a by-election in over forty years. Yet, aside from expanding the Prime Minister’s ego even further –who knew it could be done? – it represents an historic shifting of political alignments already begun with the 2019 general election and raises questions over whether the customary notion of ‘safe seats’ holds credence any longer. For it is, indeed, a considerable feat that Boris Johnson’s Conservatives have completely abandoned Margaret Thatcher’s small-state, laissez-faire approach, with an emphasis on investment in infrastructure, already resonating as hugely popular with working-class voters in the northern regions. The party have become the comforters of their own past misdeeds; whether Johnson, who has almost as much interest in substance as he does in personality, will deliver on his pledge remains to be seen.
‘Super Thursday’ also saw the biggest set of national and regional elections in one day since the 1970s, with ballots cast for both Scottish and Welsh assemblies as well as Mayoral contests in many of the larger cities. Both the Greens and the Liberal Democrats made impressive gains in local councils, whilst previous support for both UKIP and the Brexit party collapsed, having been transferred to the Tories. Yet, despite Sadiq Khan and Andy Burnham securing second terms as Mayors of London and Manchester, respectively, the Labour party are suffering from existential angst. Sir Keir Starmer has the task of rebuilding a tarnished movement following their sizable Westminster defeat eighteen months ago, a period in which he managed to maintain composure amid all the turmoil.
Starmer’s dilemma can be judged in reference to the performance of his two most successful predecessors as Labour leader; Tony Blair’s poll ratings and by-election success in the mid-Nineties, prior to his national victory, went from strength-to-strength at the expense of John Major’s government; similarly, Harold Wilson ascended the party leadership in 1963 and became Prime Minister within eighteen months! Starmer has been leader for over a year and shows little sign of making electoral headway. Whilst the Covid pandemic has rendered party political coverage minimal, making his appearances in the media less prominent, Starmer nonetheless needs to reconnect his party on a personal and cultural level with those ‘Red Wall’ seats. With a general election due in 2024 – some suggesting even earlier – he has a huge mountain to climb. Whilst his position is still reasonably secure, he must now begin to build on credible policymaking if he has any chance of convincing the electorate he can be the next premier. Leading on from the Mayoral successes, he must base such an agenda around the talents and capabilities of his top team.
The worst of the pandemic is over; normalisation of things has resumed. It may seem a somewhat perplexing social and cultural shift that so many in the Northern regions are now supporting Conservative candidates, yet the reasons for it, in a post-Brexit world, are clear; voters feel abandoned by an increasingly disengaged metropolitan elite. Johnson, in all his opportunism, recognised this and it has paid off for him electorally, regardless of party colours. The opposition must act innovatively and decisively if they wish to be seen as a strong and unified alternative to Tory populist nationalism.
It is a strange irony that, in order to secure victory in 1997, Labour under Blair had to become more London-centric to beat the Tories, and it must now reverse that trend in order to do so once again. Starmer’s humility, in the face of Johnson’s arrogance, could still pay off. The balloon may yet burst.