Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn. file
John Rentoul, The Independent
Sir Keir Starmer is coming up to the end of his first year as Labour leader — he was elected on 4 April last year, just as the first wave of coronavirus was peaking. What is significant about the past year is what has not happened. He has not been touched by any form of scandal. His party has failed to descend into civil war. And he has not made any serious mistakes — until now.
Lots of people disagree from left or right with positions he has taken, but he has made few mistakes in the basic machinery of politics. He may not have appointed the strongest shadow cabinet, although he had a limited pool of talent from which to choose, and he has generally managed the party well.
But in the choice of a candidate to fight the Hartlepool by-election, he has made an unforced error that could do serious damage. Mike Hill, the Labour MP for Hartlepool, is standing down, and the by-election is expected to take place on 6 May, the same day as local elections in much of England. Starmer acted quickly and ruthlessly to impose his preferred candidate, presenting the local party with a “longlist” consisting of one person: Paul Williams. It was not a mistake to impose a candidate: a by-election is a national political event that requires national focus, and undemocratic shortcuts are sometimes necessary.
The mistake was to impose the wrong candidate. Williams is an energetic, charismatic campaigner and an NHS doctor, but he is not from Hartlepool — indeed, he was previously MP for Stockton South — and he is an ultra-Remainer in a constituency that voted 70 per cent Leave. It may be that Labour was going to lose the seat anyway. The Conservatives would probably have won it in 2019 if the Brexit Party had not split the Leave vote. But it is in the balance, and Starmer should have tried to maximise Labour’s chances. Politics is like elite sports: winning comes from the accumulation of small advantages and the elimination of minor faults. Losing a seat to the government party in a by-election is incredibly rare and would be embarrassing for Starmer.
It has happened only five times since the war, and two of those were special cases — when Tony Benn stood while disqualified as a peer in Bristol South East in 1961, and when Bruce Douglas-Mann honourably stood for the SDP when he defected from Labour in 1982. It last happened when Labour lost Copeland to Theresa May’s government before the general election in 2017, although admittedly Jeremy Corbyn recovered some ground in the intervening weeks.
Still, there will be a lot else happening on 6 May, and it may be that Labour gains in local councils and mayoral elections can be presented as progress. Many of these were last contested soon after Copeland, when the party was 18 points behind the Tories, as opposed to a mere seven now.
I assume the timing of the by-election, which by convention is in the hands of the party that held the seat, is being chosen so that a defeat can be “lost” in the profusion of elections all over the country (except in Northern Ireland) that day.So it may be that the mistake of choosing the wrong candidate will be minimised too, rather than further swelling the chorus of discontent with Starmer’s leadership as he approaches his first anniversary.Most of the “why isn’t he 20 points ahead in the polls” criticism is misplaced and unfair.
It comes from those who hate Boris Johnson and cannot understand why he is so popular. But until they can dissolve the people and elect another, they will have to come to terms with most of the people giving the prime minister some of the credit for the success of vaccinations. Or they will have to wait for the vaccine popularity boost to fade, as it will.
The converse of the vaccine boost is also true: that the slide in Starmer’s personal ratings in the opinion polls is less to do with him than a mirror-image reflection of Johnson’s popularity. When, in the second half of last year, Johnson was the incompetent prime minister who kept getting the response to the virus wrong, Starmer was popular as the blank space on the other side who seemed to have at least some idea what he was doing.