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Labour MPs might begin to question Sir Keir’s leadership following the Hartlepool by-election defeat, with Express.co.uk having previously been told that many view him as a “Trojan Horse”. Sir Keir’s choice candidate, Paul Williams, faced an uphill battle from the outset. An ardent Remainer, Dr Williams was tasked with the job of winning over a constituency that voted 70 percent to leave the EU.
The Conservative candidate Jill Mortimer took more than half of the voter share, securing a majority of nearly 7,000.
Even before the Hartlepool by-election, Labour MPs warned Sir Keir was “not cutting through” in the seat.
Similar sentiment has been shared following the vote, with John McDonnell, former Shadow Chancellor under Jeremy Corbyn, accusing Sir Keir of sending activists out “naked” and “almost policy-less” to Hartlepool.
Richard Burgon, another MP left over from the Corbyn years, said Labour was “going backwards in areas we need to be winning”.
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Mr McDonnell and Mr Burgon are two of a handful of Corbynite members that remain, including deputy leader Angela Rayner, Dianne Abbott, Ian Lavery, and Clive Lewis, among others.
Steven Fielding, Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham, previously told Express.co.uk that these sorts of party members will become increasingly “uneasy” with Sir Keir’s direction, with many fearing that he is a “Trojan Horse” in the party.
He said there were around “20 to 25 percent” of party members, along with the Socialist Campaign Group, who will “always attack Starmer”.
Vitally, however, are the undecided who make up the bulk of the party, and who are by and large increasingly sceptical of Sir Keir’s strategy.
Prof Fielding told Express.co.uk: “There’s a more general unease among people outside of that core hostile group that are a bit concerned about the direction of his leadership.
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“Since he’s become leader he’s focused unremittingly on trying to demonstrate and communicate in different ways, shapes, or forms that the party has changed.
“And this is aimed at those Red Wall voters Labour lost in 2019 – now, you never see him without the flag; he’s talked about in various speeches family, community, security, patriotism – this last one is really what gets some members.
“People like Clive Lewis say that if you start waving a flag like that in order to get votes from Red Wall voters, you’re almost implying that it’s racist.
“If you don’t say, ‘Well I’m patriotic – but there’s lots of things wrong with being British, the British Empire wasn’t this great thing’, if you don’t critique being British while at the same time saying you’re patriotic, then they’ve got problems with it.
“When people see Starmer saying these patriotic things to Red Wall voters, they think, ‘Hang on a minute, that’s not what we want, that’s not what we stand for’.
“And so it’s part of a sense of unease that some people have had about Starmer and the direction he’s taking the party, they view him as a sort of Trojan Horse.”
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The Hartlepool election defeat appears to have only further exacerbated the fears.
Mr McDonnell said Sir Keir needs to “sit down and think through what happened in this campaign”.
He continued: “What I’ve been saying to him is you need to demonstrate to people the sort of society you want to create, the policy programme that will achieve that society and you need to get back to that real grassroots campaigning.
“We must never again send our candidates into an election campaign almost naked without a policy programme, without a key view on the sort of society we want to create.”
Meanwhile, Mr Burgon urged the Labour leadership to return to the policies Mr Corbyn lost two elections with.
He said: “Labour’s leadership needs to urgently change direction.
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“It should start by championing the popular policies in our recent manifestos – backed by a large majority of voters.”
Others have defended Sir Keir and laid the blame on the likes of Mr McDonnell, Mr Burgon and Mr Corbyn, however.
Peter Mandelson, who sat as Hartlepool’s MP for over a decade and was integral to New Labour under Tony Blair, directly pinned the blame on Sir Keir’s predecessor.
He said he felt a “mild fury” at the result, adding: “Until the Labour Party and until people like all of these people who were with Jeremy Corbyn leading the party to the worst possible defeat we could have imagined in 2019, until they grasp the scale of the challenge and transformation it needs to undertake as a party we will be here again and again on mornings like this.”
Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme, he added: “The reasons for the defeat, if I really had to boil them down to two things, I’d say they were two Cs: COVID-19 and Corbyn.”
Dianne Abbott: The Corbynite MP claimed the former leader was not to blame for the defeat
Ms Abbott claimed that Mr Corbyn was not to blame for the Hartlepool result as Labour had secured the seat in 2019 under his leadership.
Yet, many have noted that one of the main reasons Labour held on to Hartlepool was because the Brexit Party split the Conservative vote.
John Curtice, the polling expert, told the Today Programme that this week’s by-election showed how those voters had not only moved from the Brexit Party to the Tories, but that the voter share had further slid towards the Conservatives from Labour.