The election of a Conservative MP in Hartlepool for the first time in the constituency’s modern history is yet another wake-up call for my party. Peter Mandelson once enjoyed a 17,500 majority here. Now the Tories are deep into what was once safe Labour territory – the industrial heartlands of the North – with a 7,000 majority of their own. In the West Midlands it looks again like Labour will lose out on the mayoral race and more. What has gone wrong for the Labour party and our wider movement?
My view is simple: in the past decade, Labour has lost touch with ordinary British people. A London-based bourgeoisie, with the support of brigades of woke social media warriors, has effectively captured the party. They mean well, of course, but their politics – obsessed with identity, division and even tech utopianism – have more in common with those of Californian high society than the kind of people who voted in Hartlepool yesterday. The loudest voices in the Labour movement over the past year in particular have focused more on pulling down Churchill’s statue than they have on helping people pull themselves up in the world. No wonder it is doing better among rich urban liberals and young university graduates than it is amongst the most important part of its traditional electoral coalition, the working-class.
A bit of superficial flag-waving – reinforced by urgent memos from party HQ – isn’t going to fix that. We have to recognise that the patriotism of these voters runs much deeper than that. They are more alert to rebranding exercises than spin doctors give them credit for. Their patriotism is about historic pride in their places, the heritage and stories of those places, and the Britishness and Englishness of the people and families that call them home.
I think of my own constituency in Birmingham and the city’s proud car-making history. There is a loss here that inspires the small-c conservatism of the working class: we know something has vanished and it hasn’t been replaced. This is what Jon Cruddas, speaking to Lisa Nandy this week at a Policy Exchange event, meant when he talked about the 'dignity of labour' and how Labour must not lose sight of its historic roots. As he puts it:
'Parties are not just machines to chase votes and demographic flows. They are built out of ideas, traditions and memories and speak on behalf of certain communities. You cannot just jettison that.'
But Labour makes a mistake if it thinks all this is about nostalgia and looking backwards. It is also about the present. People on the ground, far from the elite and academic discussions in the capital, want the basic things done right. They want job security themselves – not zero hours contracts – and for their children and grandchildren to have a bright future. They want an NHS that works and doesn’t leave them waiting months for an operation or weeks for an appointment with their GP. They want investment in infrastructure, and in basic transport such as cleaner and greener buses. Most of all, they want to be listened to. I despaired when our local council ignored a 15,000-strong petition for a new flyover. On occasion, that we-know-best attitude can be found on a local level, too.
There is a need for humility, to begin with. If Labour is to win back seats like Hartlepool it will have to change the minds of people who yesterday chose to vote Conservative. Is there a danger that our party, in its opposition and confusion over Brexit, has veered towards an anti-British attitude? I certainly worry that some of our previous supporters will see it that way.
We fix that by supporting jobs in these so-called left behind areas – with changes to public procurement, for example, that bring jobs back to the UK and support manufacturing jobs, including those in high tech, advanced manufacturing.
Campaigning in Hartlepool over the past month, Peter Mandelson was told by one former Labour voter on the doorstep:
'Sort yourselves out. You picked the wrong brother and you ended up with Corbyn so that’s goodbye to you. When you’ve sorted yourselves out, we’ll look at you again.'
It would be easy for Labour MPs and members to whinge about the unfairness of this summary of the past decade. But we must recognise that is how we are seen by so many people in the places that were once unfailingly loyal to us – as a party that has lost its way. It is only by engagement on a local level, meeting eye to eye with voters and hearing their concerns, that we will fix that. I will be doing so not from the Labour front bench, but walking the streets of my constituency as a backbencher and talking face to face with the people I have the honour to serve.