The Hartlepool byelection spells disaster for Keir Starmer – and Labour

If Corbyn can’t win Hartlepool, and neither can Starmer, who can?

It looks like Labour is about to lose the seat of Hartlepool to the Conservatives for the first time since 1964.

A dramatic Survation poll shows that Jill Mortimer, the Tory candidate, has 49% support among the Red Wall constituency voters, easily beating the 42% share of Labour’s Paul Williams.

It’s one poll and it’s one view, and the obvious classic caveat is the one that the Tories are keen to stress – there’s only one poll that matters and that’s election day. But still, this has been billed as a key byelection to gauge the public mood, and all the signs are there that Labour is as far from power as ever.

So what on earth does all this mean? We can quibble over the extent, but nobody will be arguing that Sir Keir Starmer is anything but a clear departure from Jeremy Corbyn. Yet he is set to lose a seat that even Jezza didn’t manage to throw away in the great ‘Conservative Charity Seats Donation Fund’ event that was the 2019 General Election.

If we’re being completely fair, it’s probable that, absent the Brexit Party, the Tories could have taken that seat as it seems that entire block vote has now gone blue. But even if that were the case, even if it had gone blue and was now being contested in a byelection, surely Labour would need to be winning this back to show a direction, a path to Downing Street?

There could very likely be an election in summer 2023 – that is not a long time away. And if Hartlepool is any sort of marker, we could be in for an even larger Tory majority.

And where does that leave Labour? Five general election defeats in 13 years doesn’t bode well, particularly if the margin is only getting wider. And across the Labour spectrum as well – Gordon Brown, Ed Miliband, Jeremy Corbyn (twice) and Sir Keir Starmer would all have tried to swap sides of the House with the Tories, and all will have failed. Who do you turn to next? Who’s the next in line to the throne? Which faction takes the wheel next time, and based on what?

Honestly, predicting the complete downfall of a major party in the UK is a fool’s game…but is that where we’re headed? I couldn’t tell you the vision, the purpose, the blueprint for government that the Labour Party would bring, so how could I vote for them? You may say the same about the Tories, and I’d agree, but they’re in power. They have the incumbency and stuff to talk about – what is the purpose of Labour at this point?

Fans of Corbyn are often of the opinion that the election defeat wasn’t wholly his fault, that he was definitely popular, that everyone loved him really, that it was the media’s fault and that he was treated unfairly. Putting aside the childishness of those arguments, they were summarily dismissed by the wider commentariat – Jeremy Corbyn has to own his failures as leader. And that was quite right.

So the same is now true of Starmer. If Labour lose Hartlepool, it’s his loss, nobody else’s. He has to own it. The million pound question for Labour then is; if not Corbyn, if not Starmer, then who?

If only Jeremy Corbyn had won

It doesn’t matter who is in government – it’s the opposition that is more needed than ever

Cast your mind back to December 2019 (or 1BC, Before Covid, as it should probably henchforth be known). The general election has been a fraught campaign between the incumbent Prime Minister Alexander ‘Boris’ Johnson who came to power on the back of the toppling of Theresa May, and Jeremy Corbyn who was battling accusations of antisemitism in his own party.

Somebody comes to you from the future – they can’t tell you who wins but they can tell you what is happening a year from now.

The Treasury – they tell you that the rail services have been effectively renationalised, the UK economy has shrunk by 11.3% (the largest for 300 years), the UK has borrowed £394billion, easily a peacetime record, including a government scheme costing £43billion to pay people not to work (indeed, making it illegal for those people to work) and they’ve given a million NHS workers a pay rise.

Unions – they tell you that the teaching unions have managed to persuade the government that all schools should be closed and children are to be taught remotely.

They tell you that everyone is confined by law to their own homes with minimal, strict exemptions and the opposition has not only failed to oppose this, but been incredulous that it took so long to do. They tell you a close government adviser praised the “innovative intervention” of China’s Communist Party in imprisoning their population, even saying “I think people’s sense of what is possible in terms of control changed quite dramatically between January and March; [China is] a communist one party state, we said. We couldn’t get away with it in Europe, we thought… and then Italy did it. And we realised we could.” And the government listened to this man and gave him a top table seat.

There’s a new national tradition – everyone has to come out of their homes and applaud public sector workers. The incumbent Prime Minister does it outside Number 10 – it is frowned upon to not do it.

Freedom passes‘ are coming – an official document that would be required to access the most basic services, Anthony Blair’s dream finally come to fruition, even more authoritarian than even he could have imagined. Papers, please.

Who, dear reader, do you think wins the election? The fop-haired [MASSIVE AIR QUOTES] “libertarian” [END MASSIVE AIR QUOTES] who campaigned to leave the EU or the turnip growing socialist who was frightening Jews? The man even gives you £100 to bet on it – where does the money go?

Ok sure, we’ve been sneaky here in neglecting to mention that a global pandemic struck. But ok, fine. Let’s tell them – a pandemic strikes and world leaders are panicking. Tell me with a straight face that you’d still lay a ton on De Pfeffel over Jezza.

And herein lies the problem. Johnson has paralysed the system because the way he chose to react (yes, it was a choice) to an undoubtedly scary situation was entirely against every “principle” he had ever claimed to espouse. Yet his followers, his party, those who have loved him for years, yearned for the day he would embrace his destiny and seize the keys to Number 10, can’t quite take it in. The Tory media can’t figure out how to approach the subject, MPs who love him but hate his approach to Covid have no idea how to hold him to account. They are confused, wrong-footed and nervous to try.

The man spent decades carefully building, honing and cultivating this mawkish, sickly adoration. He became a darling of the Conservatives and built up such a cultish following that, now the illusion has evaporated in plain view of anyone who cares to see it, his devotees are still staring dimly, wide eyed at the small, helpless Wizard of Oz, exposed as nothing more than a carnival showman with silly hair.

Still today, opinion pieces in the Telegraph and the Spectator pine for the ‘Old Boris‘, clamour for him to realise his mythical, non-existent ‘Churchillian spirit‘. It’s as pitiful as watching latter day Branch Davidians hold on to the myth of their founder.

Imagine – imagine – it was Corbyn in Number 10 and McDonnell in Number 11. Imagine the ferocity of the Tory benches. We’d actually have an opposition, which frankly is a damn sight more important at the moment than the resident of the seat of power.

It’s perfectly clear now that the government, of whichever stripe had been selected to lead the country, would have done exactly the same thing, give or take a few hundreds of billions of pounds (who can really take in these vast numbers any more?). What matters is how they are held to account and how they are opposed. Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour party has been supine, acquiescent at every turn, nay even demanding the government to go harder, faster, deeper. “What he said, but better” is the rallying cry of Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition Leader.

The only opposition, once again, is a small sect of the Tory benches, just like on Brexit. This is simply not healthy. The government benches are supposed to back the government, the opposition benches are supposed to oppose. Like it or not, that’s the system and it’s breaking down. Every institution that is supposed to act as a brake on power has failed us – the opposition, Parliament itself, the media, the courts, every restraint on power currently lies slack while the proverbial bull trashes the – irony of ironies – China shop.

I have no love for Jeremy Corbyn. Any time Jewish people speak up and say they’re frightened is usually a good time to be very careful indeed. In that regard it was with a sense of huge relief that he got nowhere near power. But look what we have now. An authoritarian government and no opposition. Even if you believe everything the government has done has been right, even if they chose the right way to deal with this, no power should ever go this unchecked in a democracy. Ever. There is no excuse.

We will pay for this fealty for decades.

We cannot continue to be governed like this

This ‘government by press conference’ must be stopped

Yes I am aware, thanks – there’s a pandemic on.

That out of the way early doors, we have got to stop sitting back and allowing ourselves to be governed by diktat and press conference. The precedents that are being set at the moment are truly crazy, and frankly even these exceptional circumstances do not justify it.

It has been something of an amusement to watch a general population who consider Alexander ‘Boris’ Johnson to be some kind of neo-fascist enabling authoritarian dictator, beg him to tell them (or more accurately, everyone else) exactly what they can and cannot do with their lives. A group of people who were (rightly) incandescent when the Prime Minister tried to prorogue Parliament in order to get something through, claiming that Parliament was the most important thing, that accountability was vital, that our democratically elected representatives should not be silenced in this way.

Yet where are we now? The government is using the Public Health Act 1984 as it’s own personal prescription pad. It writes some illegible, incoherent scrawl, tears it off, hands it to the population and tells us to do as we’re told. No debate, no accountability, no opposition, no checking with Her Majesty to see if that’s ok, nothing. Where is the outraged Speaker threatening to grind everything to a halt until things are done properly? Where is the leader of the Opposition demanding to know how these decisions are being made? Where is Gina Miller now? Nowhere to be seen.

Of course things need to move quickly when you need to react to a crisis. Things have to be more nimble than they usually are. But next time Parliament is sidelined and a load of dreadful laws and precedents are set, don’t be crying about it, because this is where it will have started and we’re allowing it.

A crisis is no reason to stop doing the important jobs of asking the right questions and holding the powerful to account – in fact it is even more important now. Handing over vast power and authority is sometimes necessary, but that’s no excuse to back down on the holding to account or the checks and balances that need to be in place to stop appalling laws from being created and disastrous precedents being set. Don’t assume that when you temporarily give up your rights and freedoms that there will be any hurry to give them back, whole or otherwise. We have to stay vigilant.

Today, HMG announced – just casually announced at a press conference – that further ‘reopening’ plans will be pushed back by two weeks. Having imposed local lockdowns again last night, the Eid plans of thousands of Muslims were ruined. Did the government not know that Eid was coming? A time when Muslims come together into each others’ homes and celebrate together? Do they not understand the impact of this? It’s like saying at 10pm on the 24th December that you can’t go to your family’s house tomorrow for Christmas. How would you react to that? ‘Oh well, guess the government is doing the best that it can, better suck it up and get on with it’ or ‘How can you possibly announce this so late and ruin our family celebrations?’

Again, yes I know – there’s a pandemic on. Things happen quickly. But that is no excuse for governing like this. It is haphazard, flailing and likely to put everyone’s backs up. Where was the transparency, the warnings, the hedging just in case? And let’s be honest – where is the law? By what authority do they do this? Is it guidance, a statutory instrument, a provision in the Public Health Act? Who is asking these questions? where is the opposition? Where are the journalists?

Weddings, which have already taken a massive hit, were planned for the time when the restrictions would ease. Now they will be restricted again. How can you possibly tell people whose weddings are already nothing like what they hoped and dreamed they would be, but honestly and respectfully went ahead and put together a Covid-appropriate wedding, that they can’t now go ahead with their plans, just like that? Sorry guys, no best day of your life now, cancel the food, the photographers, the restaurant booking, tell your guests to get lost. Oh and wash your hands, yeah? God Save the Queen and all that. It’s for the greater good (THE GREATER GOOD)*.

Well maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t. But are you honestly expecting people are just going to accept this from a government that most believe has handled this crisis like a monkey might handle a Ming Vase?

Precedents are being set here that should worry everyone. Once these things take off, it’s hard to stop them. Let’s say by some miracle that we have some semblance of normality back in a few years. Let’s say a vaccine is created (dream on I know, but go with it). Let’s say we eradicate Covid-19 forever. What happens when the next one comes? What do we do with Covid-20? What if if we get a bad flu season?

Do we lockdown again, repeatedly, every time an infection starts to spread? Do we ‘hibernate’ our economy when the coughing starts? Do we close down all opposition and allow the government of the day to dictate to us day to day, minute to minute what we may or may not do, what we must or must not put on our faces, how far away from our loved ones we must stay, whether we may marry, whether we may say our last goodbyes to our closest family members? Is this an appropriate way to govern a law-based, Western, supposedly ‘free’ democracy?

You may scoff at me and think I’m being over-dramatic, but governments do not do well when they feel they will be blamed for something awful. No government will ever loosen security measures at airports. No government will ever remove the barriers on Westminster bridge. Once these things are there, you can’t get rid of them, because if the worst happens, everyone will blame those in power who ‘allowed’ it to happen. These measures are ratchets. Can you honestly tell me you can’t imagine this happening in future?

So when the next flu season hits and we’re all locked down again, it will be because of this. We never did it before, but we did for Covid-19. Never again will a government allow itself to be blamed for thousands of deaths, and why should they? We will be told what to do to save their bacon. And honestly, we’ll deserve it. We allowed them to do this. Nobody said ‘Ok fine we consent to this in order to stem this pandemic, but what are the conditions for relaxing? When will this end? Under what circumstances will you remove these restrictions?’ We all just accepted it, no questions asked. Any whiff of dissent was scolded. A three week lockdown to ‘save the NHS‘, transformed into semi-permanent paralysis where nobody must ever be allowed to contract or die from this disease at almost any cost. When did ‘flatten the curve’ become ‘avoid completely’?

These are the questions Keir Starmer should have been asking the whole time, but for political reasons he didn’t. He didn’t want to look like an opportunistic politician opposing ‘for opposing’s sake’. Pity that’s your actual job title though, Sir Keir. We could have used you.

There may very well be no end to this. This could be it now – this could well be our lives. I hold no hope in ‘normality by Christmas‘, nor in a vaccine being produced that will allow us to return to normal.

And so it will continue. Johnson will carry on taking our freedoms and liberties at the click of a finger as nobody seems bothered enough to stop him. Hard won, easily lost freedoms and ways of doing things, gone in a cloud of sneeze particles.

Yes I know. There’s a pandemic on.

*One for the Hot Fuzz fans. Needed one laugh in this pessimistic piece.