The most recent results for the May local elections and the Hartlepool by-election have shown that the political landscape is experiencing a long-drawn out process of party realignment. Traditionally, opposition parties are expected to make major gains in local elections and put concerted pressure on the party in government. Rather than starting to reconstruct the “Red Wall,” the Labour Party’s loss of Durham County Council and 327 councillors emphasises that the Party’s 2019 general election defeat is not a political blip.
When Jill Mortimer, the Conservative candidate, was announced as Hartlepool’s new MP, what was most disconcerting for Labour was not the result alone but the magnitude of the defeat. The Conservatives won 51.9 per cent of the vote share and the 9 per cent fall in Labour’s vote share demonstrates that the North of England has followed Scotland’s example in choosing to digress from consistently lending support to the party.
Fundamentally, what best explains the exodus in popular support for the Labour Party in their heartlands?
Their dismal election performance in Hartlepool reflects the importance of Brexit in disrupting traditional partisan allegiances. Hartlepool overwhelmingly supported leaving the EU in the 2016 referendum, with 69.5 percent of its electorate voting to leave. It is most likely that the architect of the Labour Party’s 2019 pledge to call another referendum, Sir Keir Starmer, is facing the long-term consequences of disillusioning Leave voters, as John Curtice has pointed to the party’s dependence on ‘the views of Remain voters’ as a prime cause of their electoral woes.
Central to the Labour Party’s recent failures is their identity crisis. The party is perceived as prioritising virtue signalling issues which don’t address people’s day to day hardships, with Starmer acknowledging that Labour ‘need to be patriotic and proud about it’. That the party has been accused of becoming hostage to values of the metropolitan elite is given credibility by Labour’s exceptional success in the mayoral elections, with Sadiq Khan and Andy Burnham securing comfortable victories in London and Manchester.
Before offering a new and distinctive vision which is free of the influence of Corbynism, the party will need to question why their success in winning 11 out of the 13 mayoral posts was not matched by their performance in the towns and specifically in the North. The party has become a victim of Britain’s cultural war, in which you are either on the side of the ‘woke’ warriors or the immigrant hating far right.
With YouGov’s latest poll showing support for the Conservative Party reaching a high of 46 percent and the Labour Party still only managing to receive 30 percent of the electorate’s support, Boris Johnson’s current political hegemony shows no sign of collapsing.