Labour lost a crucial constituency in Hartlepool following the worst election result since 1935. After a calamitous local campaign, Labour have found themselves in an electoral and identity crisis. There have been talks among the party of possibly supporting electoral reform in a bid to try and regain power. Problematic is the reality that they would first need power in order to support necessary reforms. Therefore, talks have emerged of possible changes to Labour’s electoral strategy. A bid to gain more seats in the south will likely come at the expense of money in the north, so the question remains: where are they most at risk for further loss, and where do they stand to gain?
The Loss of the “Red Wall”
The north of England for the most part has been Labour-supporting for most of the twentieth century. Though many areas continued to support Labour, the trend of declining enthusiasm was apparent, though not widely discussed, for years. For example, Hartlepool’s Labour vote share has decreased in each election except in 2017. As most public attention was devoted to looking ahead to which seats had been exchanged between the parties, pundits spoke little of Labour’s declining support. It appeared that despite Blair having an overwhelming electoral popularity, Labour’s brand was being tarnished with a succession of less than admired leaders. Then came the 2019 election. The “Red Wall” began to crumble as seats in Wakefield, Blythe Valley, Bolsover, Bury North, and Wrexham all fell to the Conservative Party. While not all these areas are in the north specifically, they are considered long-term Labour holds. The reason for Labour’s staggering defeat is much debated. Perhaps it was just too little too late in terms of the brand of Labour, perhaps it was Corbyn, perhaps it was Brexit? Still, no clear answers have emerged.
Loss of Identity
One of the many complaints from Labour supporters and political observers was that the party appeared to have lost its political identity. It was, people argued, created to represent the working class who lived predominantly in working class towns. Over the years, though, it seemed as if the party had come to represent more metropolitan interests, and specifically those of the London middle class. This was most emblematic when in choosing the Labour leadership, out of the three final MP candidates, it was a male from London who prevailed over two women from the north. To make matters worse, Keir Starmer headed Labour’s Brexit policy, which many Cornyn supporters cited as the reasons for the failure of the Labour party. Their claims ran parallel to the vocal northern voters who had voted for Brexit and thus found themselves the object of scorn from many Labour MPs and activists.
Coming off the 2019 Election
Keir Starmer seemed to have started off well, with positive polls in regard to him personally. Labour gained constituents as the Conservatives were losing popularity following the Domanic Cummings incident, and with public sentiment opposed to lockdowns. Starmer appeared professional. He seemed capable and in control, unlike the maniacally-appearing Johnson. There was concern among the left-wing of the party and the Tories, however, that Starmer basically didn’t stand for anything. There were grumblings, too, in the left-wing that he had not acted in opposition; that he was “basically Tory” as he tried to move the party closer to the centre. These sentiments made the rounds even as Jeremy Corbyn opposed everything the government had done.
But the criticism of Starmer likely grew worse after he told his MPs to abstain over local tier systems, a move that was seen as putting party over country .Coming into 2021, his personal polling began to drop just as Labour began to catch up in public surveys. Brexit had been agreed to and ratified, and the UK went into a third lockdown just as the vaccination programme was started. Success of the latter brought surge upon a surge of positive polls for the Tories, just as Starmer’s ratings began to rapidly decline. While Labour began to pick up the pace in polling, and showed signs of closing the gap, local elections loomed. And as the Hartlepool election drew near, many people were wondering how things would turn out- especially in the “Red Wall”.
The 2021 local elections and aftermath
The 2021 local election, like many others, demonstrated that public polls are just polls. In the end, Labour endured a net loss of 327 councillors and 8 councils. The Conservatives, however, gained a net of 235 councillors and 13 councils. And of course, Labour lost Hartlepool. Though the party gained in vote share compared to 2017, they only gained 1% compared to 8% by the Conservatives. Even as the night was seen as an overall failure for the Party- and Starner’s leadership – a sliver of hope was found in the West of England mayoral elections.
Following this pitiful night, Starmer said there would be changes, and we expected a mass cabinet reshuffle. It was leaked that Angela Rayner, the deputy leader, would be sacked as party chairman and campaign coordinator and Lida Nandy was to be sacked as foreign secretary, which started a battle behind-the-scenes in Labour. The infighting presented a massive test for Starmer, who was tasked with making the necessary leadership changes while also keeping his party on side. His efforts at party unity were unsuccessful, and many on Rayner’s side considered it a resounding victory. The cabinet was simply a reshuffle with very few personnel changes. Though she was rumoured to have been gone a while ago, Analese Dodds remained in the cabinet, and assumed Rayner’s role as chairman. Raynor received a mountain of briefs, including PMQs, in which Boris Johnson specifically noted his concerns. Nandy, too, stayed in her post, which was seen as further evidence of Starmer losing control of the party.
Even worse, Redfield & Wilton conducted a poll in which it was concluded that 67% of respondents did not know the identity of the new Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves; 60% did not know Lisa Nandy, and 52% did not recognize David Lammy, the new Shadow Justice Secretary. Yet 52% of respondents did know Yvette Cooper, who was surprisingly left out of the Shadow Cabinet.
The Labour Southern Strategy
With voters in the red wall going away from Labour, there have been talks about Labour aiming to gain more support in the south in an effort to gain a majority and make up for losses in the north. To analyse whether this change of strategy is wise, first off, we need to know how much they stand to win and lose. To do this, we’ll look at how many seats they stand to win from a 0.5% swing to a 5% swing in the south, and how much they stand to lose with the same metric in the north..
|Seat||Swing (to the nearest 0.5%)|
|Chingford and Woodford Green||2%|
|Hastings and Rye||4%|
|Truro and Falmouth||4%|
|Filton and Bradley Stoke||5%|
|Milton Keynes North||5%|
|Milton Keynes South||5%|
|Percentage of gains at 5% national swing||23%|
|Seat||Swing (to the nearest 0.5%)|
|Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford||0.5%|
|Oldham East and Saddleworth||1%|
|Batley and Spen||1.5%|
|Wentworth and Dearne||1.5%|
|Lancaster and Fleetwood||3%|
|Stalybridge and Hyde||3%|
|Houghton and Sunderland South||3.5%|
|Worsley and Eccles South||4%|
|Hull West and Hessle||4.5%|
|Sheffield South East||4.5%|
|Washington and Sunderland West||4.5%|
|City of Durham||5%|
|Percentage of loses at 5% national swing||54%|
One important caveat, is that obviously not every seat in this will change, and in turn, seats with larger swings may change. What this indicates, however, is that as Labour focuses on the Southern seats, there is likely to be less reward and more risk than that of the northern seats. Party members in the north who already feel disenfranchised with Labour may turn Tory. The idea that Labour should focus on the south is likely as a result of the 2021 local elections, where the Tories did relatively worse in the south than in the north. Labor’s successes in London in recent elections, also bolster the change in strategy.
However, it is clear that a southern-based strategy, in the short term, is more likely to be worse off for Labour. Obviously in an election anything can happen, and if they explore a strategy like this, perhaps less northern seats will fall, or they can use momentum to push in the north after making good progress and press. Nevertheless, purely on a metric, there appears to be a greater reward in keeping a northern strategy. Perhaps greater energies should be turned to Starmer, who is not northern or representing a northern seat. How can he appeal to disenfranchised Labour voters?