Today’s big question

What next for Keir Starmer after Labour’s historic Hartlepool defeat?

Former red stronghold turns blue for first time in its history

Keir Starmer has suffered a huge setback in his first electoral test with the former Labour stronghold of Hartlepool turning blue for the first time in its history.

The Conservative by-election victory represents “the loss of yet another constituency in Labour’s traditional heartlands after the 2019 collapse of the ‘red wall’”, The Times says. The Tory candidate, Jill Mortimer, won a decisive victory by 15,529 votes to Labour’s 8,589, representing a remarkable swing of 16%.

Tapping into a feeling that will resonate across Starmer’s party, Mortimer’s victory speech accused Labour of taking Hartlepool “for granted for too long”. “I heard this time and time again on the doorstep. People have had enough”, she said. “And now through this result, the people have spoken and they have made it clear it’s time for change,” the BBC reports.

‘Bungled’ strategy

Starmer, who has been in his post for just over a year, is facing calls from his party’s left wing to “change direction” in the wake of the “shattering” defeat, says Sky News.

The Conservatives “didn’t just win” in Hartlepool, “they romped home”, says the BBC’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg.

By-elections are traditionally fertile ground for opposition parties, and are “often moments when voters remind the administration of the day who is really in charge”, she says. But “not this time”.

Many had questioned Labour’s strategy in the Brexit voting seat, which included selecting a “strong Remain candidate”, Paul Williams, in a constituency where “voters were massively in favour of leaving the EU”, Kuenssberg adds.

“Most of Labour’s electoral problems are a consequence of the vaccine bounce,” argues New Statesman political editor Stephen Bush. But an “unorthodox” candidate and the “bold decision” to hold the election to coincide with local elections mean Starmer still “bungled the handful of calls he could make”. 

While the Labour leader “has a pretty convincing alibi for the electoral problem he has today, he doesn’t have one for the political choices that may give him a different electoral problem tomorrow”, Bush adds.

Changing base

One of Starmer’s – and Labour’s – biggest problems rests on articulating exactly who the party represents in a political landscape that was overturned by 2016’s Brexit vote and a rapidly changing economy.  

“For at least 15 years, Labour has been losing working-class support to the Conservatives, while attracting younger urban support,” says Daniel Finkelstein in The Times, but “the problem for Labour is that their new vote isn’t large enough to replace the old one”.

Criticism of Starmer will likely “settle on his tactics and even his personality”, but “the right thing to question is his strategy”, Finkelstein adds. “How is he going to tackle Labour’s long-term demographic challenge?” 

There are rumblings from some on the Labour left about a leadership challenge, reports Emilio Casalicchio in Politico’s London Playbook, however, those “hopes will fade when comrades find themselves unable to unite behind a single challenger”. 

One party source told Politico that Starmer could become a “lame duck” boss as MPs to the right of the party begin planning to replace him after the next general election. “You’ll begin to see his authority wane and the big fish maneuver quite disrespectfully around the still-moving carcass,” said the unnamed insider. 

Meanwhile, MPs on the Labour left are agitating for a change in strategy, with former shadow home secretary Diane Abbott tweeting that it is “not possible to blame Jeremy Corbyn for this result. Labour won the seat twice under his leadership. Keir Starmer must think again about his strategy.” 

Lloyd Russell-Moyle, the MP for Kemptown & Peacehaven, tweeted that if Starmer wants to replicate the success of President Joe Biden he must “learn from US Democrats, where policies united the party, the left was brought into top table not pilloried”.

Biden presents “reforming policies” as “common sense”, he added, while managing to speak for “woke liberals and the blue collar left at same time”.

Shuffle the pack

On the immediate horizon, the most likely move for Starmer is a shadow cabinet reshuffle. Backbench MPs and shadow cabinet ministers are united behind “a root-and-branch reshuffle of his top team”, The Times says, with Labour MPs arguing that the current line-up lacks “political punch”.

Sources told the paper that those who could face the chop include Anneliese Dodds, the shadow chancellor, Nick Thomas-Symonds, the shadow home secretary, and Emily Thornberry, the shadow international trade secretary.

However, “low personal ratings, rebellious MPs and now a humiliating defeat in Hartlepool” may mean Starmer will “not fight the next general election”, The Telegraph says. Instead, the paper suggests that he could follow in the footsteps of George Lansbury, a name that “will ring a bell with only the keenest students of politics”.

Lansbury was the last Labour leader to step down without fighting an election, a “fate that could yet befall Starmer if he cannot turn around his party’s fortunes – and fast”.

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