To assume, one of my old chief reporters used to say, makes an ass of you and me.
Labour assumed that it owned Hartlepool. It took its votes for granted for half a century, and when it had power did not do enough to reverse the town’s decline. It tarted up the docks, but poncey flats don’t cure poverty – it just moves it out of sight, and it starts to stink.
Labour didn’t lose Hartlepool last night. It lost the place 20 years ago, along with Scotland, much of Wales, north Kent, Middlesborough, Dudley, Walsall, and Worksop. Being taken for granted that long is enough to piss off any voter, and its heartlands were ripe for plucking by the first person who offered to stop the rot.
But while Boris Johnson is out there harvesting the votes of people who learned, like every car insurance customer, that loyalty is rarely repaid, he is making the same mistake. He now assumes he can’t lose.
Johnson’s rise to power has been the Great Train Robbery of British politics. A small-time crook who’d struggle to get elected to a borough council felt entitled to something more, and had enough cunning, charm, and ambitious friends to get voted into two jobs in which he’s had fewer achievements, and racked up bigger disasters, than he could have managed with greater proximity to real work or people.
He’s not a Tory. Most of his Parliamentary party loathe him, as do a good-sized chunk of the Tory and Brexit-voting public. They wanted to back a winner, but like the good burghers of Hartlepool once did, they wrongly believe the winner will, in turn, back them.
But who do you vote for, if you don’t want wild, unfunded spending? Who do you pick if you want to own a home not rigged as a firework, to be cared for in old age or illness, or support for small businesses? To which party do you turn if you think the country should be run by grown-ups with a vague idea of morality?
The Tory heartlands are currently lying as undefended as Hartlepool was, and have been for decades. But they have changed, too: they are home now to huge numbers of graduates, social liberals, Zooming professionals. Hartlepool wants its old glory, but these people want a new world.
They have more in common with Sir Keir Starmer than they do a blundering, waffling, shambling showman whose only qualification is a master’s degree in lying. They’ve more sympathy with Brexit-is-hardly-ideal-but-let’s-get-on-with-it than the still-angry seats in poorer areas.
And while Hartlepool’s change happened years ago, these other places – commuter towns, suburbs, the Home Counties, the big cities – have changed in just 12 months. Their jobs, home lives, ambitions, and expectations have taken a twist, and their politicial opinions are in the balance.
But for whom can they vote? Labour calls itself ‘the Left’ and in doing so has boxed itself off, not opened the door. There is no ‘the Right’, just Labour versus ‘Everyone Else’ who don’t see the need to define or identify as anything, any more than they think it a good idea to make a lifetime commitment to DirectLine.
In the past year, the world has become more flexible but neither Labour or the Tories have done the same. Johnson’s disciples want to go back, before Covid, before Blair, before universal suffrage if they could. And Labour is a human centipede of self-hate, arguing which bit of itself it despises most.
Getting the votes of traditional Tory areas doesn’t mean being more Tory. It means realising that pandemics realign society, and that successful politicians spot and follow the new priorities that arise.
The newly-abandoned places are ripe for picking by the first party to offer them full-fibre broadband, a national care service, and protections for people working from home on their own dime while the bosses benefit from lower leccy bills. These are ‘the many’, now, the ones whose voting patterns will ordain the next decades.
They want two holidays a year, an iPad for gran, and faith that those in charge aren’t racists. People in Hartlepool don’t give two hoots for any of that, but they are ‘the few’, these days.
Its voters don’t look at Johnson, or his cabinet, and think ‘yep, they’re for me’. It’s just that they did that with Labour for years, and it didn’t work out. So they might as well back the bastards, and see if they get thrown a bone. They’ll soon find they don’t get one.
There are three years until the next general election. Years in which Labour can sell policies it would be foolish to announce now, because the Tories would only nick them. A thousand days, in which a government so corrupt it is prepared to sell sponsorship rights for the PM’s wallpaper will only get sleazier, and in which his claims of losing weight, or fixing social care, or levelling up, will become equally worthy of ridicule.
Labour’s heartlands have gone. The Tory heartlands are undefended, represented by imported peers-in-waiting with an eye on the job they get after this one. A rebranded Labour Party can win over both, if it stops assuming who will or won’t vote for it.
Whoever takes nothing for granted, can take power in 2024.