Labour has lost Hartlepool. A once-safe labour seat now has a Conservative majority of 25%.

And a variety of conflicting explanations are already forthcoming, including:

  • the Labour Party still hasn’t recovered from Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership;
  • Sir Keir Starmer is not the leader the Labour Party needs – with over 150,000 dead from COVID in the UK and a hard Brexit still playing out, winning this by-election should have been automatic;
  • Brexit has polarised the UK into two new tribes: Johnson gets it; the other party leaders don’t – Labour must ‘embrace Brexit values.’

Do these explanations make sense?

No: any convincing explanation must be systemic and explain some clear long-term trends:

  • what happened yesterday in Hartlepool continues a trend from at least 2005;
  • in the UK as a whole, there is a clear trend almost a quarter of a century long;
  • explanations which rely on events taking place after 2010 are therefore likely to be missing some important factors.

The Hartlepool by-election continues a trend

At first glance, it looks as though Labour should have expected to hold Hartlepool.

The results appear to show a collapse from over 55% to around 35% in the Labour share of the votes cast for the two main parties. Surely something dramatic must have happened to one of these two parties to account for this change?

But when we take the other parties into account, this is the picture we see.

In 2005, over 80% of the votes in Hartlepool were cast for left or centre-ground political parties (Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens) and only around 15% were cast for right-wing or far-right political parties (Conservatives, BNP, UKIP, Brexit). Since 2005, there has been a steady decline in the votes for the left or centre ground parties, and a steady increase in the proportion cast for right wing or far-right parties.

The change in Conservative votes since 2019 is the result of the disappearance of UKIP and the Brexit party rather than anything significant in the Labour Party.

Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party in 2015; the Brexit referendum was in 2016; and Sir Keir Starmer has been leader of the Labour Party since 2020.

To understand Hartlepool, we need to understand at least the last 16 years, not just the last 5. None of the explanations above account for this medium-term trend in Hartlepool.


The UK has been drifting to the right for almost a quarter of a century

And Hartlepool is not alone. When we look at the history of UK elections since 1918, this is the picture.

In 1997, the Conservatives’ share of the vote reached its lowest level at 31%, and it has been increasing steadily ever since. Labour’s lowest point since the Second World War was in 2010 after the Global Financial Crisis, when only 29% of the votes cast were for Labour. In 2019, the Labour vote share was still below where it had been in 2005.

We must look for deeper explanations

Any plausible explanation of these trends, needs to go back at least until 2005 when the people of Hartlepool began to lose faith in the centre-left, and consider what might have impacted people’s lives and their perception of their lives since then.

Perhaps the most obvious factor which influences people’s lives is the state of their personal finances. If you are well-off, your finances are determined (on average) by the overall health of the economy. If you are not so well-off, then the level of government spending also has a direct effect on your quality of life.

The economy as a whole was performing well up until the Global Financial Crisis – the Governor of the Bank of England referred to the period from 1997 to 2007 as the NICE decade (non-inflationary, continuously expansionary). But the Global Financial Crisis, and the Great Recession which followed it dealt an enormous blow to the economy – and as we have written before, the damaging austerity which followed meant that we have seen very low growth in GDP per capita since that time. That is what has hit the better-off.

But the worse-off have been hit even harder, and for even longer. Most developed countries spend well over 40% of GDP on public services. In the UK, under Margaret Thatcher, that percentage fell sharply. It did rise under Labour, but not back to 40% and not for long: Labour had a spending slowdown that started in 2005.

Of course total government spending shot up after the Global Financial Crisis – but this was ‘emergency spending’ and did not add to the services on offer to citizens. And since 2010, we have experienced another round of austerity.

If you are not so well-off, the last 40 years has not been great. And your grumbles with Labour might begin around 2005.

The lower line on the graph – stripping out the emergency spending – is probably more reflective of how public spending has felt, especially to those on lower incomes. If you are not so well-off, you may have been feeling the pinch since 2005, and of course, most people in the UK are poorer today than they were in 2007.

So people have a reason to grumble. And they want to know who to blame.

In the case of Hartlepool, there have been numerous interviews with residents complaining about the running down of public services in the Town — and deciding that Labour should take the blame.

Most people’s perceptions, of course, are influenced by the media. And the UK media landscape, while not unique, is extremely unhealthy. In the picture below, “total brand reach” means the total number of readers reading each title in both print and online formats.

As you can see, our media landscape is dominated by a handful of media owners: Lord Rothermere, who owns the Mail, the Metro and the i; Reach plc which owns The Mirror, The Express and the Star; Rupert Murdoch whose companies own The Sun and The Times; Sir Frederick Barclay who runs the Telegraph and Lord Lebedev, who owns The Standard.

With the exception of Reach plc, these are billionaires who are domiciled outside the UK, avoid their taxes and promote a strongly right-wing agenda. Their personal interests are not closely aligned with those of the typical voter in Hartlepool – or anywhere else in the UK. The vast bulk of the press is under their control – and the BBC tends to follow their lead. Most of the titles they control have been pro-Brexit and pro-Tory at least since the Global Financial Crisis.

So, a more convincing explanation of the Hartlepool result, and of the overall rightward drift in the UK since 2005 is simply that people have been finding their lives increasingly difficult since that time, and (with a little bit of help from our right-wing media) have come to believe that it is the right-wing parties which care about their lives and will do something to improve them.

What conclusions should we draw? In essence, two simple points:

  1. many people have very solid ground for feeling dissatisfied with their lives – and any political party that does not recognise this and speak to their problems will lose;
  2. it is vital for progressive parties and other progressive organisations to ally to:
    1. combat the economic myths that many still believe (e.g. that Labour caused the Global Financial Crisis or the Tories are good at running the economy);
    2. develop a clear and positive vision for a future of the UK which addresses most people’s concerns about their lives;
    3. have a realistic prospect of coming to power in a reasonable timeframe.

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