It was 4am in Hartlepool, and a group of local business people were hatching a plan to mark a significant political event. Just a few hours earlier, ballot boxes had been sealed, and the voters had passed judgement in the first by-election of the Covid era. The man who defied the iron laws of politics had done what mid-term governments very rarely do: take a new seat from the opposition. For Boris Johnson, it was just another brick in the realignment of Labour’s Red Wall.
Hartlepool was a remarkable moment in Britain’s post-war political history. In the aftermath of the first stage of the pandemic, a decade-old governing party took a seat that had been Labour-held since its formation in the 1970s. The appetite for change, regeneration and “levelling up” was strong. It was why the local business group — known as the Hartlepool Wombles — erected a 30 foot inflatable of Boris Johnson in the town in the middle of the night. “We are doing this to mark a historic change in Hartlepool,” one of them told ITV. Johnson headed straight for it and made sure the photographers had the front page snap for the weekend papers.
As Johnson victoriously fist pumped and elbow bumped his way through the streets of Hartlepool, Sir Keir Starmer decamped to his office to deliver his response. Standing in front of shelves of Hansard, he concluded that Labour had “lost the trust of working people”. Deputy leader Angela Rayner agreed: “Labour has talked down to voters for too long.” For the Daily Mail, Johnson appeared to have signalled the end of Starmer’s leadership before it had even really begun. “Election bloodbath” ran their Saturday front page. “The day Boris blew up Labour.” The question for commentators was just how deep Johnson would venture into Labour territory.
It was a sign that the party was heading in the wrong direction
Just over six months have passed since Hartlepool, but it already feels like the politics of a different age. Over the Autumn, the slow drip-feed of news — from David Cameron’s botched attempts to make millions to Matt Hancock’s “video nasty”, to the awarding of covid contracts, the flat refurbishment, Peppa Pig, the Patterson scandal and the never-ending roll call of party revelations — has put Boris Johnson on the ropes. The idea that chaos is priced into his electoral appeal is coming under scrutiny for the first time. And it is the traditional Conservative voters who have blinked first.
The loss of one of the safest Conservative seats in the country, combined with the emergence of a Labour poll lead, will inevitably cause jitters for Tory MPs this Christmas. Suddenly, political commentators are no longer reaching for historical comparisons with Bermondsey, Warrington and Glasgow East (Labour’s electoral catastrophes) but instead to the Conservative record books. To situate North Shropshire in its historical context, a swing of 34.2 per cent from Conservative to Lib Dem is the second largest since the war, bettered only by Christchurch in 1993. Moreover, it easily eclipses the Liberal victories in Torrington, Sutton and Cheam and the Isle of Ely, which entered political folklore.
With Johnson’s leadership under sustained pressure, the question for 2022 is whether the Labour Party can finally take advantage. In the aftermath of North Shropshire, there is some concern that the party slipped from 2nd to 3rd place, giving the Lib Dems the momentum into the New Year. However, as Ben Walker of Britain Elects has pointed out, there is historical evidence to suggest that a Liberal revival can in fact benefit Labour.
One comparison to draw is with the early 1960s, when the Tories had again been in power for over a decade. When a by-election was called in Orpington, Harold Macmillan’s party dropped 22 per cent of their vote, in a backlash of working-class and young voters who no longer felt like they had “never had it so good”. But it was the Liberal Party, not Labour, who benefited. Labour was pushed into third place, and for many disgruntled activists, it was a sign that the party was heading in the wrong direction. While nuclear weapons had not been a dominant issue in the campaign, the local party complained that a multilateralist candidate had been selected in a constituency where the local members were unilateralist. Letters were sent to Tribune, 23 March 1962, and supporters asked just how the party had lost 10,000 voters since 1945.
The long term effect would, however, benefit Labour. Orpington proved to be a moment when Harold Macmillan’s long spell over the electorate came under question. Internal Conservative analysis found that the voters were growing tired of his politics. Voters were “no longer impressed by Conservative propaganda attacking Socialist austerity and misrule by the Labour Government”. Moreover, the researchers concluded that many people were “too young to recall it or are more concerned with the Conservatives’ 11-year record”. At the election just over two years later, Wilson returned Labour to power on a platform of changing the old guard.
Starmer has less than eighteen months to make an impression on the electorate
The other period under comparison is the early 1990s. Then, with the Major Government engulfed by “sleaze”, John Smith revived Labour’s fortunes and pushed the party out to record poll leads. When a by-election was called in Christchurch following the death of Robert Adley, commentators discovered that lifelong Conservative voters were disillusioned: “Once you could have put up a kangaroo with a blue rosette and won,” one voter revealed. “Not now.”
In a constituency with one of the largest elderly demographics in the country, there was an expectation that Labour could do well. Smith’s party had spent the previous year building a campaign around the unfair treatment of OAPs, with the twin impact of rising fuel bills and inflation hitting pensioners hard. The Shadow Chancellor, Gordon Brown, roped in One Foot In The Grave’s Victor Meldrew — played by Labour-supporting Richard Wilson — to boost Labour’s message. However, Labour came a distant third in Christchurch, as the Lib Dems scored a historic victory.
Commentators began to wonder why Labour was not winning in places like Christchurch. Martin Jacques took to the Daily Mail to declare that Labour’s poll lead was a fallacy. “The Liberal Democrats appear to be the only ones to have captured the public imagination.” As with Orpington in the 1960s, Christchurch was immediately seen as a significant political moment. The doyen of BBC election night coverage, Professor Anthony King, told the nation that nothing like it “has happened since the Second World War”.
Sensing that millions of Conservative voters were up for grabs, Labour decided to make a play for them. The day before Christchurch, Gordon Brown announced that Labour would ditch its controversial tax policies that had formed the bedrock of their spending plans. Labour had, he argued, been dogged by the notion that they gave “insufficient priority to individual aspiration”. On tax, he argued, that Labour would not tax for the sake of it, “but for reasons to increase opportunities for people”. It was an argument that would sweep Labour to power in a landslide four years later.
The political question for 2022 is whether Labour can turn the current discontent into support for their project. If, as the political commentators and betting markets suggest, Britain will head to the polls again in the Spring of 2023, Starmer now has less than eighteen months to make an impression on the electorate. However, the Lib Dems have shown a chink in Johnson’s armour, and there is space for Starmer to capitalise.
Within a few weeks, the Thatcher era was over
One way Labour could create some momentum and energy would be to gain a seat from the Conservative Party in a by-election. It has been lost in the long Wilderness Years of opposition, but in the past 25 years, Labour has only taken a single seat — Corby in 2012 — from the Tories. In contrast, the three people who managed to take a party from opposition to the government in the past forty years — Thatcher, Blair and Cameron — all made inroads into opposition territory. Such victories give opposition leaders a rare chance to shape media narratives. Without such moments, hyperbolic claims that a party is en route to power and in tune with the electorate lack credibility.
There is one final comparison which Starmer will be hoping to avoid as he enters his third year as party leader. In 1990, the Lib Dems benefited from anger in the Tory ranks over Europe and the Poll Tax to secure a stunning by-election victory in Eastbourne. Labour again finished third but benefited from the ensuing fallout. Neil Kinnock’s Labour doubled their poll lead from 8 to 16 points within a few weeks. In a confident spell, he called for elections and talked of the country needing to be “cleansed” of Thatcherism. Broadcasters, such as ITV, commissioned documentaries to examine what a Labour administration under him would actually do.
It was all enough to give the Tory Party the jitters. Within a few weeks, the Thatcher era was over. But so too was Labour’s poll lead. Playing on his working-class background, John Major framed himself as a clear break from the past. He united his party and urged them to stop being “a bunch of fighting ferrets in a sack”. The change blunted Labour’s attack lines, and Kinnock’s attempts to label him a “Thatcherette” flopped. At the 1992 election, the government defied the pollsters and won their fourth consecutive term.
As Johnson ploughs through his Winter of Discontent, it is clear that his opponents’ most consistent attack line — “One rule for them, another rule for the rest of us” — has cut through with the voters. Whether it will withstand a change of Prime Minister or the rigours of an election campaign is still unknown. Events in North Shropshire will inevitably frame voters’ minds towards the choices now in front of them. If Starmer is to end up in Downing Street, he must find the tools to make the most of it.
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