What Labour needs to do to win back its once safe seats like Hartlepool

The Hartlepool result is no shock – it reflects several factors, including Labour’s disconnect from the public, writes Gary Shipton

Labour party leader Keir Starmer and partner Victoria leave a polling station after casting their vote in local elections in London (Photo by Tolga Akmen / AFP)

The Tories' landslide victory in the Hartlepool by-election has been repeatedly described by London-centric commentators as a “shock result”.

But those outside the metropolis will not be surprised by the Conservatives' gravity-defying performance in this and in the early results from other English local elections.

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It is unprecedented for a party in power to be making gains on this scale especially in the heartlands of the official opposition.

The Conservatives have hardly had an easy 12 months through the pandemic - beginning with criticism over the speed at which they responded to the crisis and culminating in 'wallpapergate' and the Prime Minister's handling of his Downing Street flat makeover.

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But the aftermath of Brexit has had complex ramifications.

Boris Johnson's implementation of the 2016 referendum result has not merely delighted those who voted out of the EU, but won the respect of those who are committed to the principle that a democratic vote should be honoured.

More interestingly, the absence of the Brexit Party as a result of our EU departure left more than 10,600 votes up for grabs in the North East town. Few should be puzzled that many of these appear to have headed in the Tories' direction.

The Labour candidate's Remainer credentials was the final nail in the party's coffin.

But that does not entirely account for the first signs of a seismic shift to the right in English councils further afield.

As Labour quickly conceded this morning, it needs to move faster with its own reforming internal programme - and it must present a clear set of policies that set it apart from the Conservatives.

It has also badly misjudged the popular support for Boris Johnson himself.

The row over the cost of wallpaper and who initially paid for it has simply not cut through with the public. It might have been different if there was a suggestion that the taxpayer had picked up the bill - but they didn't.

Instead, the people of Hartlepool and elsewhere in England remain as concerned about matters of culture as they do economics. They are proud of their heritage, of where they live, of who they are. They expect their politicians to do the same - and Labour has still to convince the regions on this point.

More than that, after a year in retreat, hard-working families want and demand a better future.

In Hartlepool, the victor pledged to get the town the investment it needed.

If Labour is to win again in its once safe seats it must prove that it shares both those cultural values and economic aspirations - and that it has the courage and fortitude to make them a reality.

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