Analysis Politics

Is there hope for Labour after the Hartlepool hangover?

Rachael Ward explores where the Labour Party is heading

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Image Credit: Adrian Scottow

From the horizon of Hartlepool to the by-election in Batley and Spen, Labour have been itching to present their potential to take power. After some of the sturdiest bricks in the ‘red wall’ toppled down when the Tories took Hartlepool from Labour, the fate of the party and the future of their leader rested on the result of the Batley and Spen by-election.

Like any opposition, Labour faces a cluster of complexities. A breeze through some of their most prominent problems puts the party’s prospects into perspective. A narrow victory, an insecure leader, and some patchy policies seem to be the greatest stumbling blocks for the party hoping to burst Johnson’s bubble.

Although Starmer stands at the bottom of a mountain, its peak continues to heighten. Amid the irregularity of British party politics in a pandemic, Labour fronts the problem of positioning themselves as convincing enough to bring back embittered voters while clinging to their committed party members.

As is the topical tune of the Labour party, Starmer has had merely over a year to make an impression as new leader. But, for how much longer can this explanation (or excuse) wash? With the lifting of lockdown, Starmer has the platform he has been waiting for to pitch his Prime Ministerial bid.

Firstly, Labour’s narrow victory in Batley and Spen resembles hope, but not triumph.

The party that has been struggling to unify managed to muster together a unitary sigh of relief at the sight of Kim Leadbeater’s win in Batley and Spen. This calmed the calls for Starmer to step aside and tempered the tension created by Labour’s apparent inability to win elections. Although Leadbeater was unbeaten she only narrowly escaped defeat with the Tory total toppling up and Labour’s majority trickling down.

Secondly, Starmer’s unsteady leadership and Labour’s interior antagonisms seem to evermore engulf the party. These internal divisions illustrate the steps yet to be taken to create some coherence.

As Starmer shuffles the pieces of his political players around the shadow cabinet table, the new Shadow Chancellor, Rachel Reeves, was not the top pick for Labour’s left - to say the least. The purported right-leaning posture of Reeves is continuously criticised by the left of the party, raising suspicions that she could be a blue political animal in red clothing. Meanwhile calls to make way for Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, to take over the reins are little help amidst Starmer’s challenge to build confidence in his own leadership.

Finally, the policy needs some polishing to bring Labour back up in the polls.

The woman hoping to pull the purse strings of government echoes an economically focused tone. Reeves appears to be laser-focused on creating and supporting British jobs. Embracing Brexit and embracing Britain, Labour has penned down a plan for ‘Buying British’, which they hope will have a broad appeal. Interestingly, Reeves has posed alongside her interview about this new economic experiment with the Tory Telegraph of all tabloids. A subtle signifier that Labour is reaching out to a different audience, as their conventional watchers raise doubts about what their party stands for. Although ‘Buying British’ projects a patriotic tone, how far can the presentation of an economic policy reconcile with the accusation that Labour lack pride in their own people?

While coining a catchy cliché slogan instead of clear policy is far from an all-encompassing tool, it appears that the Conservative pledge to ‘build back better’ continues to conquer any phrase uttered by Labour to epitomise their policy proposals. As confusion curdles away with Covid and its incoherence, perhaps Labour needs to adopt a simplistic slogan to surmise where they stand.

Moreover, few policies stand out for social care. There have been consecutive convictions to improve social care and repeatedly these convictions have crumbled. As Labour and the Tories struggle to suggest solutions for the social care crisis, another gaping void is present in Labour party policy.

The fresh but familiar face of the Department of Health, Sajid Javid, is enthusiastically pledging that once the gates of freedom are thrown open and the masks are tossed aside that there will be “no going back”. A solid demonstration of the government’s eagerness to move swiftly on. To compete with this astute assertion, Labour need a sharper, sterner and surer voice to outline their position and peddle up support.

So, whilst Starmer gets to steer the party further through its reconstruction, passing the political test in Batley and Spen cannot be solely pinned to Starmer’s leadership - nor is it enough to turn the tide on the party’s fortune.

As Labour struggle to be heard in between the muffled clouds of Conservatism and internal party opposition, a little more unity and a lot more clarity is needed before one can place Labour in the same sentence as resounding victory.

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