How Labour are taking the voting public for granted
Labour has no hope of returning to power if they fail to capture a comfortable working-class seat from a government that has presided over the greatest crisis in living memory
It is rarely a good idea for political parties to take the voting public for granted, but that is precisely what the Labour Party appears determined to do. Faced with the fact that their traditional working class voting bloc in the North and Midlands is collapsing – largely because they have become a London-centric middle-class clique – they are resolutely pressing on in the same disastrous direction.
The coming parliamentary by-election in Hartlepool provides a prime example of the party carrying out Einstein’s definition of insanity: to keep doing the same thing while expecting a different outcome. Or, to put it another way, when in a hole to stop digging. Except that Labour are wielding the shovel with abandon.
Labour has learned nothing from their long line of devastating defeats since 2010
After Mike Hill, Labour’s sitting Hartlepool MP – who is facing sexual harassment allegations – stepped down this week, the party rushed to move the writ for an early by-election in May. Labour had the perfect candidate waiting in the wings: Dr Paul Williams, a GP who managed to lose his seat at Stockton South in the 2019 election as one of the Red Wall seats suddenly turned Blue. Following his defeat, Dr Williams returned to his medical practice, but his political ambitions were far from over.
A fanatical Remainer, Dr Williams was a staunch advocate of Britain signing up to the EU’s not terribly successful vaccine procurement programme. As Hartlepool is a fervently Brexit-supporting seat, with 69 per cent support for Leave in the 2016 referendum, his Remainer views may be a barrier to his election – which is presumably why he has been busy this week deleting his pro-EU posts from his social media accounts. But the internet never forgets.
Other past embarrassing posts by the good doctor include referring to Tory women as “MILFS” – a derogatory sexist term – and lauding Saudi Arabia as “progressive” following a freebie junket he had taken to the murderous Medieval Kingdom not best known for its progressive attitudes towards women. At a time when women’s rights are at the forefront of political discourse, this is definitely not a good look.
How many Labour rivals did Dr Williams defeat in his struggle to be selected as candidate for Hartlepool?
The answer – astonishingly – is none at all. He was selected from a short list of – ahem – just one: himself. Any other candidate hoping to get the nod having been given just one day to put their names forward. In short, this was a classic and completely undemocratic stitch-up by the tin-eared and politically inept Labour leadership.
Like the Bourbons returning to rule France after the interludes of the French Revolution and Napoleon, Labour has learned nothing from their long line of devastating defeats since 2010. By putting up a soundly beaten ex-MP with views at dramatic variance from most of the voters he is seeking to woo they are displaying arrogance, ignorance and ineptitude in one neat and ugly package.
Before rushing in Labour would have been better advised to look back at the history of such by-elections when an unpopular outside candidate had been parachuted in over the heads of local people to a constituency in which they have little knowledge and no previous connections.
In the 1964 General Election, in which Labour scraped into power after “thirteen years of Tory misrule”, one seat that bucked the trend and went from Labour to Tory was Smethwick in the West Midlands. In an area of high immigration, the successful Tory candidate, Peter Griffiths, had made much of the issue, failing to disavow a racist slogan which saw him branded as a “Parliamentary leper” by the new prime minister, Harold Wilson.
Wilson was especially annoyed by the loss of Smethwick as the defeated Labour member was Patrick Gordon Walker: a lugubrious looking cove earmarked to be Foreign Secretary in the new government. Wilson promptly booted one of his MPs, Ted Sorensen, up into the Lords to make room for Gordon Walker in Sorensen’s supposedly safe seat of Leyton in Essex. The result was predictable: in the resulting by-election the Leyton voters, resenting having an outside candidate dropped into their backyard for such spurious reasons, failed to elect Gordon Walker and plumped for a Tory instead.
When voters know that they are electing a single member rather than a government they often use their votes as a protest
Though Gordon Walker did win the seat at the next election in 1966, he never became Foreign Secretary. Four years later, in the 1970 General Election, Labour made another electoral error. Their MP in the rock-solid Labour Welsh mining constituency of Merthyr Tydfil was an aged former miner named S. O. Davies. Just how aged became a matter of dispute. Davies claimed to be a stripling of 83, though alternative birth data put him closer to 90. At any rate he was certainly rather elderly and Labour picked a younger candidate to replace him. Davies, a wildly popular local figure who had represented Merthyr since 1934, did not take his ousting by outsiders kindly. He stood against Labour in the seat as an Independent and duly won, dying two years later, his actual age still a mystery.
The maverick Scottish socialist George Galloway pulled off the trick of beating his old party in previously safe Labour seats not once, but twice. He was elected as MP for the Respect Party in Bethnal and Bow in London’s East End at the 2005 General Election and in Bradford West at a by-election in 2012.
What this history means for the Hartlepool contest only time will tell. Usually party machines parachuting their chosen candidates in prevail over local protests. The former Labour MP for Hartlepool Peter Mandelson being a pertinent example. Though reputedly mistaking a local dish of mushy peas for his more usual London diet of guacamole, the “Prince of darkness” held the seat from 1992 to 2004.
On the other hand, by-elections are very different from general elections. When voters know that they are electing a single member rather than a government they often use their votes as a protest, and the policies and personalities of individual candidates come under closer scrutiny and count for more than in national contests.
One thing, however, is certain: if Labour cannot hold a working-class seat against a sitting government that has presided over the greatest sustained crisis since the Second World War – and has often handled it with less than smooth efficiency – then the party has no hope of returning to government for the foreseeable future.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe