Keir and loathing in Las Comment Sections: Columnists are convinced they're right about Starmer... this time!

Oh, and guess who's to blame for Labour driving straight into the ditch.

We were somewhere around Hartlepool on the edge of the Red Wall, when the votes began to take hold. I remember saying something like, ‘I feel a bit light-headed, maybe you should drive…’ And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge twats, all swooping and screeching about the hard left. And a voice was screaming: ‘Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn columnists!’

Then it was quiet again. Peter Mandelson had taken his shirt off and was pouring Pol Roger on his chest. ‘Tony Blair,’ he muttered, staring at The Sun with his eyes closed. ‘I suppose you should drive,’ I said and steered the Great Not Red At All Actually Shark toward the right of the highway. No point in mentioning the columns, I thought. The bastard will be writing one of his own soon enough…

He was competent, they had told us. He was Mr Forensic with his comically large magnifying glass and laser-like focus. He was the any leader who would be 20 points ahead, any minute now. And then — as every shitposter on Twitter had predicted from the moment Starmer’s team parachuted in a milf-checking, Saudi-excusing loser from a nearby constituency — Labour lost Hartlepool for the first time in 62 years.

The race was on among the columnists to find the reasons and those reasons had to include Jeremy Corbyn, even though Labour under his leadership held Hartlepool with an increased vote share in 2017 and repeated the feat in 2018 with a lower vote share but a healthy majority of 3,595.

In the i, former Labour adviser in the racist mugs, pink minibus and Ed Stone-era turned Times Radio stooge, Ayesha Hazarika delivers a piece under the headline Labour has become the patronising supply teacher of politics – we need a return to grit, wit and steel. She shows great restraint by holding off until the second paragraph before mentioning Jeremy Corbyn:

It was a terrible night for Labour. Again. If I had a pound for every time I’ve said that over the years, I could afford some very expensive wallpaper which it turns out no one cares about anyway.

This loss is not all the fault of Jeremy Corbyn. He hasn’t been leader for a year. Keir Starmer was the grown up in the suit, and we believed he could do better. Time will tell at the next general election. To be fair, the party he inherited was a toxic basketcase which had just had its worst defeat in more than 80 years, but… the voters don’t care about that. And as I say to my more Blairite friends, that was the test we set Corbyn: you can’t change the goalposts on winning because the loser is your guy.

Her words reveal once again one of the biggest problems with the lib wing of British politics and political commentary. Starmer looks like the actor playing the Prime Minister in a low-budget ITV midweek drama so he should be appealing. He’s “the grown up in the suit” so he should be more palatable.

It doesn’t much matter to most columnists if a leader has beliefs or anything to say so long as they brush their hair, look ‘good’ in a suit, sing the national anthem and drape themselves in the Union Flag like a Nuts magazine cover girl from the early-00s. That’s what makes Hazarika’s line — “We are also painfully out of touch with so many people all across the country, and have been for a long time.” — true but for none of the reasons, she thinks it is.

There are a lot of coded phrases in her column that translate to “I don’t think Starmer is sufficiently racist enough” — which is patronising towards both voters in areas that have gone Tory and the politics in general, but this stands out:

I don’t think Starmer should go, but he needs to step up. When asked on Channel Four News what he stood for, he looked panicked and rambled on about how he worked on abolishing the death penalty across the world. Noble as that is, it is not a vote-winner.

‘What Keir needs to realise is that British people don’t give a shit about foreigners and never will. In fact, maybe he could float bringing hanging back and really tap into the vibing with Priti Patel demographic.’

In The Times, Janice Turner, offer much the same argument to Hazarika, under the headline For Labour, purity matters more than votes. And as with every other columnist we’ll look at today, Turner concludes that Labour’s problem is what she was already obsessed with — the ‘tyranny of the woke’.

Deliberately ignoring the patriotic poses, flag hugging, and repeated kicks to the shins Starmer has delivered to Labour’s left, Turner writes:

No one votes for a party that hates you. Who does Labour love-bomb? The unemployed, the young, gig workers, the struggling, the poor. But in Hartlepool, houses are cheap: a couple with two average salaries can own a home and car. They want holidays, a new kitchen, a bottle of wine with dinner. They are “working class, middle class”: their lives aren’t comfortable but nor are they hell and, while they hope their kids go to university, they retain unfashionable values of patriotism, self-reliance, material aspiration.

Yet all they hear from Labour is chiding and judgment: they are not good enough, pure enough. Their cars cause the “environmental emergency”, their unfamiliarity with arcane language makes them bigots, their Brexit vote renders them deplorable ever more.

Boil down her argument and she’s saying: The people of the Red Wall — a concept that was only really spun up by pollsters in 2019 but is now spoken about like ancient prophecy — are more middle class than working class and so quite rightly they don’t give a shit about the young, the poor, the unemployed and the struggling. It’s offensively reductive, but Turner thinks she’s paying them a compliment.

The truth about why the Conservatives are demolishing the ‘red wall’ is actually contained in Turner’s piece but it’s not the part she wants the reader to focus on. While she leans on notions that Starmer’s Labour is still ‘too woke’ and must tack even further to the right, the real reason is there amongst her rhetoric:

So if a Tory candidate comes along, not only eager to be liked but able to secure Westminster cash for real stuff like factories or business parks, rather than just hashtags and rainbow flags, they’d be dumb not to listen. A red wall Tory must stay on his toes, might try harder to deliver, since he can’t take votes for granted — for now — or he’s out.

That’s the more honest analysis of the Hartlepool win: Keir Starmer is about as appealing as a bowl of sick, but that’s not helped by the fact that he’s far, far from the prospect of winning a general election while the Conservative Party can offer voters this protection racket promise — “Vote for us and get investment, don’t and we’ll strangle funding to you as we do to other Labour areas”.

Whatever had happened, Turner was going to write a column concluding that Labour needs to kick out the Left and should stop going on about things that make her uncomfortable like the fact that gig workers are the working class now.

Her column even opens with an abject distortion of what happened during the 2019 general election. It’s an impressive feat to twist history that happened less than two years ago, but she manages it:

In the late 1980s, my Yorkshire father used to say “I’ll never see another Labour government in my lifetime”. My dad’s longevity and Tony Blair ensured he saw three. But waking to the Hartlepool horror show, I wondered the same. If Corbyn and Brexit brought down the outer walls of Labour’s traditional support, this 16 per cent swing was a sinkhole.

I’ll repeat it for the hard-of-thinking among Britain’s columnists: Corbyn’s Labour held Hartlepool twice in two years. Starmer took the voters of Hartlepool for granted by offering them an empty suit even emptier than him and the party was punished accordingly.

While Turner concludes that Starmer “who outwitted the hard left” — subs to check that claim — “by keeping his moderate cards close” is still worth backing, over at Times Red Box, Lord Andrew Adonis — British politics’ greatest example of reverse nominative determination — howls Labour needs an election winner. Keir Starmer isn’t it.

But who could Adonis — writing from beneath his Tony Blair bedspread in his Tony Blair wallpaper lined Tony Blair commemorative bedroom, watched over by his collection of variously sized Tony Blair cardboard cutouts and cuddly gonks — be thinking of when he says “election winner”? And how did he manage to type a whole article without breaking off to ‘relieve the pressure’?

As it is Adonis only manages 18 words before he mentions Tony Blair. The political colossus, who has never managed to actually get elected to any post higher than city councillor himself, writes:

All politics comes down to leadership. Labour’s problem is that it has had weak or terrible leaders since Tony Blair stood down 14 years ago, and until it gets an electable leader it will keep losing elections.

At least his lordship can claim to be an expert in losing elections but while his loyalty to Tony Blair will go with him to the grave — when he will be buried in his Tony Blair pyjama set clutching his favourite Teddy Blair — he’s already gone off Starmer. He says:

I supported Keir to replace Jeremy. There was no one else credible and retrieving the leadership from the hands of the Marxist far-left was the first step towards electability. I hoped that Keir, an effective ex-public prosecutor, might have sufficient leadership capacity and modernising social democratic vision to reshape Labour. Unfortunately, he turns out to be a transitional figure — a nice man and a good human rights lawyer, but without political skills or antennae at the highest level.

We’re back where we started with Hazarika, with Adonis mistaking the ability to purchase and wear an expensive suit with actually having any political ideas.

And, unsurprisingly, given his status as Britain’s premier New Labour tribute act, Adonis ends his column by plagiarising Lord Mandelson’s words from earlier in the day on Friday:

Oh, and just consider the past 11 elections. The record is this: Defeat. Defeat. Defeat. Defeat. Blair. Blair. Blair. Defeat. Defeat. Defeat. Defeat.

I hope he’s got plenty of garlic and sharpened stakes to hand in case Mandy decides to take offence at the theft of his words.

On the subject of the immortal undead, let’s take a look at what John Rentoul, another member of Tony Blair Fans Forever, has to say. I had to register to read this as it’s paywalled as part of the oxymoronically named Independent Premium but if you can’t be bothered the headline is probably enough to go on with:

Keir Starmer has no excuses for the scale of the defeat in Hartlepool

Rentoul’s prose is dryer than 5,000-year-old skin — can’t think why that metaphor sprung to mind — but he surprisingly waits until the fifth paragraph before mentioning Jeremy Corbyn. That’s an incredible achievement by his standards but he soon relapses:

The immediate Labour response has been to restart the civil war, with Jeremy Corbyn supporters saying that they cannot be blamed this time, and Starmer’s supporters saying oh yes they can. The message from Starmer is that he inherited the worst Labour defeat since the war and that he cannot be expected to turn it around in 13 months.

… Corbyn did a great deal of damage to Labour’s reputation, but Starmer has made mistakes in trying to repair it. Caroline Flint, the Labour MP who lost her seat in the general election, and no Corbynite, pointed out that “in the past few weeks Labour has been obsessed with curtains in Downing Street” and that has not been cutting through to people.

And once more for luck: Corbyn’s Labour held Hartlepool twice.

So if the argument that Corbyn isn’t to blame isn’t right according to Rentoul and neither is the idea that Starmer just hasn’t had enough time to right the ship, what is the reason? Well, the Count of Commentvania has… no idea beyond picking a Leave supporter:

If Labour had chosen a Leave supporter who lived in Hartlepool as its candidate – and the strong third place for Sam Lee, a former sports journalist who ran as an independent, showed the pull of localism – a close defeat could have been presented as turning the corner. Starmer’s supporters could have put these election results down to the success of the vaccines and waited for more favourable political circumstances around the corner.

But the scale of the crushing defeat in Hartlepool, and the failure to make any progress in any Leave-voting areas, suggests that Labour’s problems won’t be solved by just waiting and hoping.

Meanwhile, over at The Telegraph, Charles Moore comes not to praise Labour but to point at its grave and laugh until his aged lungs hurt. Beneath the barely less than jubilant headline For the first time, I suspect that reports of Labour's death are not exaggerated, Thatcher’s biographer connects it all back to Brexit and offers the same narrow idea of who ‘workers’ are and what ‘working class’ mean as his rivals at other papers:

Margaret Thatcher had a soft spot for Labour. “It’s the party of the underdog,” she would say privately to people who wrote it off. For her, this gave it moral legitimacy, though that did not make socialism any less wrong.

The clue to Labour’s strength lay in its name. “Labour” meant not only the parliamentary party but also the other arm of the “Labour movement” – the trade unions. In theory, this made Labour the natural majority in the 20th century. It sought to represent the enfranchised collectivity of the working class in an era when most people were working-class, making them richer through the fruits of their labour.

Labour felt like the future. Its high point was the general election victory of 1945. As late as 1997, the Labour movement remained a bedrock upon which Tony Blair cleverly built modern, middle-class extensions, as a conservatory improves the value of a late-Victorian terraced house.

… In general conversation nowadays, the word “labour” is little used: we speak more about “work” or “jobs”. Maybe, in political conversation, the idea of “Labour” is becoming similarly redundant. In the 1980s, as the SDP emerged, the death of Labour was mistakenly pronounced. Mrs Thatcher’s instinct proved correct. But perhaps it really is happening now. The “underdog” is no longer the right word for the ordinary worker, and Labour’s ideology no longer arises from that worker’s “lived experience”.

This, as with Turner’s reading of recent history, is a distortion of slightly more distant events. The idea — out of the mouth of Margaret Thatcher’s biographer — that Tony Blair built his electoral success on “the bedrock” of the Labour movement is for the birds. He made a pact with Rupert Murdoch, tacked right on social policy as well as foreign policy, and did his best to keep the Left of his party neutered and gagged.

Today’s columns are really just the opening round of the latest bout of Keir and loathing. The Sunday papers — home to Dan Hodges and shifty Tim Shipman — will be the really unhinged dispatches.

But in the printed provocations today we can see the usual columnist game playing out — the answer is always the answer they were going to give anyway and the common conclusion is that it’s the ‘Hard Left’ that caused all this rather than a limp Labour Right and a Conservative Party that can and will pour money into battles it wants to win.