Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer. (Image: UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor)

In the UK, with Jeremy Corbyn gone from the leadership and firm hands back on the tiller steering a sensible centrist course, the Labour Party has gone to… a new series of disastrous defeats. Last Thursday saw a grab bag of elections, from a Scottish “devolved” poll to local councils to a byelection in the northern seat of Hartlepool.

Scotland is a headache for UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson (more on this later) but the other two were disasters for Labour. Local council elections are a big thing in the UK given the absence of regional governments, with a proportion of councils up for election every year. Labour lost more than 300 seats and the Tories gained 200. Given that incumbent governments are usually punished in these outings, and that the Johnson government staggers from crisis to crisis, that’s a pretty good result for the Tories.

Even better for them was the result in Hartlepool, your classic north-east constituency: a fishing town which became a Victorian shipbuilding city, all the industries closed in the ’80s after the old town heart had been ripped out for a shopping centre in the ’70s, which is now dying too. The place apparently got a marina in the 2000s, which was meant to fix everything. During the Blair years its MP was Peter Mandelson, the co-architect of New Labour, after which the place voted 70% for “leave”. It has been Labour for all but six years since 1945.

It’s the latest to fall of the “red wall” seats, the supposedly rock-solid north that stops Labour from being carved up. The red wall collapsed in 2019, with Labour down to 203 seats in the 650-seat Commons. This was blamed on Corbyn and his crew by a party centre who actively sabotaged him throughout the campaign. He was replaced by Sir (yes, Sir) Keir Starmer, a rock-jawed establishment type who was meant to have a touch of the Tony Blairs about him.

Since becoming leader, Starmer has kept a small target, announced no new program or direction, and assailed Johnson. Last Thursday he lost Hartlepool, 15,529 to 8589, the magic 28%, on a 42% turnout. Corbyn had won the seat twice. The loss was blamed on Corbyn.

It won’t matter to the narrative of course that Starmer lost a red wall seat after the Brexit issue was out of the way. It won’t matter that Labour’s campaign was so small-target that MPs on TV explicitly refused to say what their program was. Or that one of the few bright spots was Preston Council, which Labour retook with an explicitly left program. In Hartlepool, Labour lost to a farmer, Jill Mortimer, who lives in Yorkshire (Hartlepool’s in Durham) and can’t explain the years she spent living in the Cayman Islands.

The vacating Labour member had quit as soon as sexual harassment complainants threatened with going to the police, and the candidate the party centre dropped in, Dr Paul Williams, was a medical consultant who had advised closing down half the city’s hospital — which was what Labour was attacking the Tories over. He was not only a Remainer, he led the campaign for a second referendum. Williams recorded a 16% swing against him.

What came next was equally shambolic. Starmer, praised as a cool pair of hands, professional back in charge, etc, responded by sacking his deputy, Angela Rayner, one of the few working-class people in the leadership. This craven buck-passing met with open revolt, even from non-left MPs, and Starmer had to make it look like he was merely reshuffling her into multiple key roles — her job title now stretches to 24 words.

Never mind. There were honest party grandees ready to give the unflinching truth. Mandelson said that Starmer had come “unstuck”, and that the fault was … left-wing unions who should be separated from the party. Lord Adonis (Andrew Adonis, a British-Cypriot, not a Marvel character) said Hartlepool raised the question of whether Labour was finished. Andrew Rawnsley, a sort of British Peter Hartcher-Peter van Onselen mash-up, said it still had to make distance between itself and Corbyn who had “never looked prime ministerial”. Except of course to the 40% of those who voted for him in 2017, the largest Labour vote since 1997.

That vote was sabotaged in 2019 by the pro-remain parliamentary right, who said it would split and campaign against if Labour went to the people with a “respect the [leave] result” message. That would have preserved at least some, perhaps most, of the red wall.

But that doesn’t matter at all to these people. Labor here at least has the excuse of compulsory voting; you have to persuade the centre across. But the UK is a first-past-the-post voluntary constituency; you can win on turnout. Corbyn rebuilt that in 2017, and the right just lost it again. That is simply ignored.

It’s not about political difference any more, or firm conviction over strategy, or any of that. It’s that left-wing politics represents an existential challenge to the “centre” who have staked not only their careers but their lives on the notion that nothing ever really changes, and if it did, the elite would lose power and prestige, and that is a greater disaster than electoral loss.

Across the world, this disease is killing social democratic parties stone dead. Many of them are nearly there. How fitting that UK Labour should come to its crisis moment in the city where Mandelson, doing a walk-around at a fish and chip shop in the New Labour years pointed to the quintessentially UK dish of mushy peas and said that he would have some of the guacamale.*

*Sadly, apocryphal. On Mandelson’s team was a young American intern. Sent to fetch a team lunch from the chippie, it was she who made the error. But the story is more of a cheer up than anything else in this sad tale.