The Tory victory in Hartlepool, with a swing of 16% and the biggest increase in a governing party's vote in any by-election since 1945, is a terrible blow to Labour hopes that the choice of Sir Keir Starmer would soon stem their rot.What happened in what was a safe Labour seat - it was Peter Mandelson's in New Labour's heyday - is that voters who backed the Brexit Party in 2019 switched to the Tories. According to the election analyst Matt Singh, if that sort of shift were repeated in other seats where the Brexit Party made an impact, then more than 20 Labour MPs would lose their seats - including leading figures like Yvette Cooper, Ed Miliband and Jon Cruddas.So it is little surprise that Labour and Starmer are already being ever so humble, saying they know "people don't want to hear excuses" and that "he will take responsibility for fixing it".Why isn't Starmer's Labour cutting through?
Some voters who wanted out of the EU still don't trust Labour. That's obvious. And campaigners say voters are overwhelmingly grateful that the vaccine programme has been so effective, for which they thank the government, and that little else matters to them.But there's more to the rout than just vaccine gratitude and continued loathing of Remainers. And its magnitude is the more serious because not everything has been ticketyboo for Boris Johnson since he became prime minister.It is not as though the government's management of the Covid-19 crisis has been impeccable. Arguably tens of thousands of lives were lost because of delayed lockdowns, inadequate testing and failures to obtain essential kit and equipment.Nor have the prime minister and his ministerial colleagues been models of probity: from the award to party supporters of valuable public sector contracts, to the PM's loan from the Tory Party to buy wallpaper, the government should have been a vulnerable target for an effective opposition. The aura of dodginess is not normally a vote winner.Starmer attacked on these fronts. But voters either didn't hear him or did not care. Worse still for him, his attacks that the government is corruptly giving unfair dollops of cash for the regeneration of town centres to Tory councils and constituencies seems to have been a reason for some voters to switch to the Tories. In an age of cynicism, clean hands don't seem popular.
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So what on earth can Starmer do now? After all he's made what many would have said are the obvious changes, such as eliminating any tolerance of anti-semitism (including kicking out his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn) and ending all opposition to Brexit. For what it's worth, he is a slightly unusual Labour leader - possibly unique - in having so many of the party's most effective performers either on the back benches (Yvette Cooper, Hilary Benn, John McDonnell, Becky Long-Bailey) or in less conspicuous jobs (Jess Phillips, David Lammy).I'm told this was deliberate by him, to marginalise leadership pretenders. But if Labour's not cutting through, minimising the risk of dissent on the front bench no longer looks important. Many would say he needs to add oomph to his front line team.Second, he needs to be obsessively focused on winning elections. As one of his senior colleagues said to me, "he shouldn't open his mouth unless he knows how what he's saying will help win back voters".Third he needs a big idea. Whether we liked what they had to say, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Corbyn all had big ideas. And that matters more than ever in an age where adherence to an idea - Brexit, combating global warming - often trumps party loyalties.Starmer's general reasonableness may seem attractive to many in this era of so-called "strong men politicians", where lies often trump the truth. But somehow it is also redolent of a bygone age. And although many voters may find little to dislike in him, he is struggling to connect with them, to talk their language, and they don't yet have a big reason to make the effort of voting for him. He needs to give voters a reason to care that not backing him will represent a big lost opportunity. He hasn't done that yet.