Blame game starts early as Hartlepool election looms

Twitter spat between Femi and Owen Jones, shows that data can tell you anything you want it to.

Labour Party leader Keir Starmer speaks with medical staff during a visit to the Whittington Hospital in London, Britain, March 15, 2021. Leon Neal/Pool via REUTERS
Labour Party leader Keir Starmer speaks with medical staff during a visit to the Whittington Hospital in London, Britain, March 15, 2021. Leon Neal/Pool via REUTERS
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WESTMINSTER (Labour Buzz) - Keir Starmer’s first big voting test getting near with next month’s Hartlepool by-election, and it’s not going well. A new poll gives the Tories a seven-point lead in a seat which Jeremy Corbyn won in both 2017 and 2019.

Barring a miracle, therefore, it seems the Conservatives are likely to see their majority get even fatter next month. All that’s left, therefore, is to decide who is to blame. Fortunately, that’s one of Labour Twitter’s favourite pass times. 

For Guardian columnist Owen Jones, the blame lies squarely with Sir Keir. 

“If Labour loses Hartlepool, it’s absolutely catastrophic,” he Tweeted. “Labour won that seat twice under Corbyn. In 2017 Labour’s vote share not only increased – the party won its biggest majority there since 2001. If Labour lose, that defeat has to be owned by the party’s leadership.”

Against that came remain-campaigner Femi Oluwole, who felt compelled to stand up for Sir Keir’s honour. 

“That's a fairly dishonest take,” he retorted. “I've obviously got serious criticisms of Starmer, but Labour got 36% of the vote under Corbyn in 2019 and only won because the Brexit party split the Right-Wing vote.”

He pointed out that Labour’s share of the vote looked set to increase slightly compared to 2019.

And with that, we were off with a good old fashioned Twitter spat with the two unloading back and forth throughout the day. At stake is who takes the blame and what, if anything, the party learns.  

So, which of them is right? 

Case for the Femi

Femi’s case is simple. Labour only won in 2019 because the Brexit party split the pro-leave vote. “Look at the numbers,” he says and he’s right. The Brexit Party, or Reform UK as they like to be called these days, has seen its vote collapse by 25%. The Conservatives have picked up almost all of those votes to rise by 20%, with 2% going to the Northern Independence Party. 

Looking back to 2019 he can also draw on surveys which showed Corbyn’s leadership was listed as the top reason people defected with Brexit a close second. 

Starmer’s small gain in the polls, therefore, represents some progress in repairing the damage done by his predecessor’s unpopularity.

The case for Owen

However, Jones can also point at the numbers. The Brexit party’s 25% share in 2019 came overwhelmingly from the Labour voters. Compared to 2017, Labour dropped more than 14% compared to the Conservatives which only lost 5.3%. 

Leave voters are not necessarily Conservatives. However, what this shows is that Starmer’s leadership has helped to prod those Labour voters who rebelled over Europe right into the hands of Boris.

Corbyn found a message which brought many of them back to the party in 2017, increasing their majority. With the question of Europe resolved Starmer had every chance to bring them back home. This poll suggests that, despite all the patriotic rhetoric, the flag hugging and the pledge not to go back to the EU, he has failed catastrophically.  

Labour’s challenge 

This is one of those spats in which both sides can find enough in the data to support their position as long as they ignore that which doesn’t. 

Femi is wrong to suggest the Brexit party’s votes came at the expense of the Conservatives. Likewise, Jones is not necessarily right to suggest they would otherwise have voted Labour. 

In Hartlepool as in other northern seats, Labour’s vote suffered from two things: Brexit and the false perception that, under Corbyn, they had become anti-British. 

This explains much of Starmer’s tactics since. Brexit is done, he’s said. There will be no effort to return to the fold. He has tried to emphasise Labour’s patriotic credentials and has hugged almost as many flags as Boris. He’s trying to rebrand the party as one which socially conservative former Labour voters can support again. 

What this poll suggests, and it is only a poll, is that this strategy isn’t working at least in the short term. In 2019 the Brexit party served as a gateway drug for long time Labour supporters who couldn’t quite bring themselves, just yet, to vote Tory. In 2021, it seems, they are ready to make that final leap. 

Instead, Labour’s 4 point gain seems to have come mainly at the expense of the Lib Dems, something which confirms fears of part insiders who feel the party has not managed to tempt enough Tories back over the fence. 

Turning things around 

It’s always important to note this is just one poll. However, in analysing the data, all sides will tend to cherry-pick the data which confirms their world view.

For left-wing pundits, it’s a sign that Starmer is failing. His war on the left has done nothing to pull voters back from the right. 

For those in Starmer’s team, it’s probably a confirmation that they still have work to do. They will shift the blame onto the previous administration and tell themselves that they have to keep plugging away. The words ‘winning back trust’ will almost certainly feature prominently, regardless of the final result. 

Ironically, the heavier a defeat they suffer, the more it will reinforce their view that they are on the right track.

This is the problem this Twitter spat highlights. Labour loves arguing amongst itself. Different camps can usually find enough data to support their positions which leads them to dig in their heels. From media commentators to strategists and ordinary supporters they are very bad at processing data which tells them something they don’t want to hear. 

For that reason, it’s highly unlikely that defeat in Hartlepool will persuade anyone to change their views. All sides of the debate will talk about ‘learning lessons’, but these will only be the lessons they want to learn. 

(Written by Tom Cropper, edited by Klaudia Fior)

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