The Tories’ crushing victory in the Hartlepool by-election was worse than Labour’s darkest nightmares, says Patrick Maguire in The Times. Despite fielding the “unloved and low-wattage” Jill Mortimer, the Tories won 52% of the vote, nearly 7,000 more than Labour and double the Tory share in 2019. In the English council elections that have declared so far, the story is of more Tory gains. The Conservative Tees Valley mayor, Ben Houchen, has been re-elected by a landslide, with 73% of the vote. But for all their “gnashing of teeth”, Corbynite diehards such as Richard Burgon and Diane Abbott aren’t saying Keir Starmer should resign – yet.
This “thumping” result is no surprise, says Stephen Bush in the New Statesman. Add the Conservative’s 2019 vote to that of the now defunct Brexit Party and you get today’s outcome pretty much on the nose. What’s striking is Labour’s shoddy performance, winning just 28.7% of the vote. The Tories are triumphant thanks largely to Boris Johnson’s “vaccine bounce”, which will only grow as we reopen further and the economy recovers. But Starmer “bungled the handful of calls he could make”, personally choosing a vocal Remainer to contest a heavy Leave seat.
Starmer now has a political “riddle” to solve, says Gordon Rayner in The Daily Telegraph: why can Old Etonian Johnson connect to working-class northern voters better than “a toolmaker’s son named after Labour’s founding father”? The “uncomfortable truth” is that the Tories have already done the hard part: persuading Labour voters to switch for the first time. There’s no guarantee they can be won back. Johnson’s “high-spending, big state” Tories are dominating the centre ground and, by getting Brexit done, the party has “moved on from its decades-long internal struggle”.
But there are more “profound” problems for Labour than the legacies of Corbyn and Brexit, says Daniel Finkelstein in The Times. For 15 years it’s been losing working-class voters while attracting younger urbanites. There are nowhere near enough of these new voters to replace the old ones. This may not last for ever: the Tory appeal to older, less urban, less ethnically diverse voters may eventually give Labour the demographic upper hand. “But eventually is a long time in politics.”
The big picture
What matters now is Scotland, where they’re having proper parliamentary elections that will determine the fate of Nicola Sturgeon and the cause of Scottish independence. We should get final results on Saturday night, but the SNP doesn’t appear to be on track for a majority, pollster John Curtice has told the BBC. If Sturgeon does fall short, she’ll be in a tight spot, says Chris Deerin in the New Statesman. The PM will argue that the lack of a nationalist surge means Brexit hasn’t converted significantly more Scots to independence. Alex Salmond and his Alba party will be “a constant thorn” in her side, “demanding more confrontation with Westminster and less caution”. The coalition between the “indy-curious” and hardline nationalists could easily come unstuck.