Labour’s crushing defeat at the Hartlepool by-election and early local election results shows the party has failed win back Brexit-backing voters, the nation’s top polling expert has said.
Professor John Curtice said Sir Keir Starmer’s party shows “no sign at all” of winning back Leave voters in red-wall areas in the north of England and Midlands.
The polling guru said Brexit was still having a negative impact on the perception of Labour in its traditional heartlands, following the remarkable 16-point swing to the Tory party in Hartlepool.
“A lot of that is undoubtedly fuelled by the fact the Brexit Party, which performed better in Hartlepool than it did anywhere else back in 2019 … has disappeared,” Prof Curtice told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“Leave voters definitely prefer the Conservatives to Labour – a lot of that vote has gone to the Conservatives,” he said, adding that Labour was now “primarily dependent on the views of Remain voters”.
The expert said the same pattern was playing out in the handful of English local election results declared so far. “We’re seeing Labour losing ground quite heavily … above all in places that voted heavily for Leave.”
Prof Curtice added: “There is absolutely no sign at all of Labour making ground back amongst the Leave voters that they lost in 2019.
“Labour’s strategy on Brexit is to keep schtum in the hope voters will move on. The truth is voters have not moved on. Keeping schtum is not enough.”
But he pointed out the Hartlepool loss was not entirely down to Brexit. “What Labour will be concerned about is that they haven’t at least managed to hold their own share of the vote.
“Labour’s share of the vote is down by 9 points. So it’s not simply a case of Brexit Party going to the Conservatives.”
Sir Keir is already facing a huge backlash from the Labour left over the Hartlepool result. Former shadow chancellor John McDonnell claimed Brexit could not be used as an excuse, saying the party went into the by-election campaign “almost policy-less”.
He added: “In any election you need to have an argument, you have to put up an argument and I think the Labour Party went into this election campaign almost policy-less.”
Labour MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle mocked Sir Keir’s attempts at “flag waving”. The left-winger claimed the leader could learn from the Democrats in the US “where policies united the party, the left was brought into top table, not pilloried”.
Labour’s shadow communities secretary Steve Reed said Sir Keir needed more time to shift the perception of the party. “We have not yet changed the Labour party enough for people to feel able to go out and trust it with their and their children’s futures.”
New Labour veteran Peter Mandelson told the Today programme that the “two Cs: Covid and Corbyn” were to blame. “If you take the last 11 general elections, it’s lose lose lose lose Blair Blair Blair lose lose lose lose.”