JANET STREET-PORTER: Labour lost because Boris may be a sleazy, blustering buffoon but he gave us the vaccine, gives people a laugh and nobody has the first idea what ‘flat-pack’ Starmer would do as PM

Has Keir Starmer fallen at the first hurdle? The Labour leader claimed he was listening to what supporters want and working flat out to win back trust.

He promised Labour voters a new future, but – in a landslide result in Hartlepool – the ordinary people of the North East opted for the party of privilege, led by an old Etonian.

Last night’s momentous victory for the Tories was historic on two counts. It’s the first time the seat has not been Labour, and the first time a woman will be representing this constuency, one of the 10 most deprived areas in the country.

According to Labour Peer Peter Mandelson, the local MP from 1992-2004, Labour needs to start looking forward and stop picking over the past. The party (he helped rebrand as New Labour) won three consecutive elections under Blair, and since then has lost four in a row. Can they stem what seems like an inexorable slide to the centre-right by British society?

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer (pictured leaving his North London home today) claimed he was listening to what supporters want and working flat out to win back trust

Mandelson admitted he was ‘fairly gutted’ by the result, suffering ‘mild fury’ and putting the defeat down to two things – Covid and Corbyn.

He claims that Covid has ‘sucked the life’ out of political debate’- but is a vote for Boris just a thank you for the amazing vaccine rollout? A pat on the back for delivering Brexit? Are voters really that gullible?

To many traditional Labour supporters, the party is still split into warring factions. Corbyn may have gone, but the wounds run deep and Starmer has not done much to heal them beyond papering over the cracks. This defeat could signal the resumption of internal warfare.

Voters told Mandelson that his party ‘must sort themselves out and then we’ll vote for you again’.

Starmer might have promised a new start but what was his agenda and his priorities? According to Corbynite John McConnell, they sent out a candidate ‘naked and without any policies’ and failed to demonstrate the kind of society they wished to create.

Following a disastrous result in the 2019 election, when the Tories took 43 per cent of the vote and Labour (led by Jeremy Corbyn) scraped together less than a third – Starmer faced a huge challenge to regain lost seats in areas which were once working class strongholds, the so-called Red Wall in the North.

In 2017, Hartlepool had voted for Brexit, yet this time Labour voters were offered a candidate who had backed Remain. Unsuprisingly, the Tories took 52 per cent of the vote.

Which begs the question; what does Keir Starmer’s New Labour actually stand for? Have policies taken a back seat to Personalities in British politics? The Labour leader seems genuine and sincere in a folksy (if somewhat unexciting) kind of way – so what’s not to like?

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, pictured with newly elected MP Jill Mortimer in Hartlepool today

To me he remains curiously opaque. I have no idea what Keir Starmer would be like as Prime Minister. Or even whether I could face a whole evening talking sensibly to him.

He’s tainted by accusations that he’s yet another Islington man (who lives around the corner from Blair’s former home), a peacemaker who spends too much time trying to appease the youthful ‘woke’ new members of the party, many of whom are students and live in metropolitan areas.

They have very different lifestyle and priorities to the working class voters in Hartlepool, many of whom worked in factories and businesses that have been closed for months during lockdown.

According to Mandelson, the Tories have promised ‘a dollop of cash’ for deprived areas like Hartlepool – along with vague plans for ‘levelling up ‘- which sounded about as coherent a strategy as Cameron’s Big Society.

But if you ask me what voters chose in Hartlepool was a party led by someone they felt they could relate to. Policies weren’t the issue, presentation was all.

Consider the two main party leaders – a straight choice between two very different political styles.

Boring and sincere or bombast and boll**ks.

Why would you choose this person – the one with the most self-confidence, the loudest voice and the largest personality – to be in charge of our economy, our future investments, the care we want to fund for the elderly?

According to Labour Peer Peter Mandelson (above), Labour needs to start looking forward and stop picking over the past

Peter Mandelson was once accused of having so little understanding of working class culture that he mistook mushy peas in a chippie for guacamole but he still got elected.

Keir Starmer might wear good suits with a crisp white shirt and keep fit but that shouldn’t count against him with an electorate who’ve spent the last year in tracksuit bottoms.

In the Commons, the Labour leader has plenty of facts and examples of past failings at his fingertips (as befitting a former Director of Public Prosecutions) while his blustering opponent repeatedly displays a tenuous grasp of policy details and has already started prevaricating about vaccine passports, when the ending of lockdown might happen and how we can afford to re-enter the UK if we’re lucky enough to be able to go on holiday abroad.

There can’t be too many voters in Hartlepool who would splash out £400 or £200 or even £50 on a roll of wall paper. And how many voters in Hartlepool have at least five children by a series of lovers and who would resort to legal action to prevent any discussion of their extra marital affairs and progeny?

Starmer should be doing better but sadly, his self-proclaimed honestly and humility don’t seem to be very sexy and appealing when voters arrive at the ballot box.

Why are Labour are failing to connect with their traditional base? And why do working class men in particular seem to prefer an old Etonian, someone who has a flimsy connection with the truth and who likes nothing more than the sound of his own voice?

Starmer has had a tough time trying to please conflicting factions in Labour – the young and idealistic party members, who thought Corbyn was their Messiah, and the once-loyal traditional voters who voted for Brexit out of patriotism.

Once elected, Starmer didn’t lose any time in claiming to be as patriotic as anyone (particularly Boris, who never misses an opportunity to be the voice of Rule Britannia), and quickly voiced his support for Black Lives Matter.

But Covid blindsided him. At the start of the pandemic Starmer moaned that Boris had wasted time in imposing lockdown, but for months he has been castigated for not fighting to end restrictions.

A 30ft inflatable Boris Johnson at Jacksons Wharf in Hartlepool today after the by-election

His members work in sectors (like leisure and manufacturing) which have seen huge layoffs. Many are low-paid manual workers who were laid off, or offered reduced hours- they couldn’t work from home.

Living in Islington, North London, does Starmer understand what bothers people 200 miles away? The people who watch ITV, not Newsnight?

One commentator said that the Red Wall voted for the Tories because the party was led by a man whose private life was as ‘chaotic as their own’. A patronising observation, but one with an element of truth.

Boris has elements of the Shameless lifestyle – the clapped-out filthy car (a home for someone between homes and beds) festooned with parking tickets, full of discarded jogging clothes and food.

There was the late night row with Carrie which ended with a visit from the police after the neighbours complained.

Not to mention parading his young girlfriend while his newly divorced ex-wife was recuperating from a cancer operation.

Boris has plenty in common with the kind of bloke you see down at the pub holding forth to his mates. He has an embarrassing family; his dad jetted off to his second home in Greece during the pandemic, claiming it was a ‘work’ trip, when the rest of us were stuck indoors, unable to visit elderly relatives.

There are close family members who don’t speak to him because they find his love life embarrassing.

He’s a careless man who caught Covid – probably because (in spite of telling the rest of us what to do) he wasn’t social distancing, forgot to wear a mask, and certainly hugged and shook hands with any fans in the vicinity.

A man who nearly died (because he was seriously overweight in spite of all those cycling photo-opportunities), and then recovered and told us all to get fitter.

There are plenty of men who live their lives like this, not just working class ones.

Boris Johnson (pictured with his fiancée Carrie Symonds yesterday) has elements of the Shameless lifestyle – the clapped-out filthy car festooned with parking tickets, full of discarded jogging clothes and food

In a week when the public seemed more interested in the final episode of Line of Duty than policies, the signs were obvious.

The past year has seen us opt for fantasy over reality. We’ve been trapped at home, glued to the telly night after night- with nothing but soaps, bent coppers and bonking aristos in knee breeches.

Reality television spawns people who have a quip and and putdown for every occasion. Who cares what they believe in, we love how they REACT. Graham Norton can earn £3million a year from the BBC and we don’t begrudge him a bit. Boris ticks the same boxes.

Stanley Johnson (80) can hang out with ‘Toff’ a twenty something posh reality star from The Only Way is Chelsea and winner of I’m a Celebrity, and nobody thinks it’s slightly odd because they are both larger than life characters who thrive on social media.

Never mind the nitty gritty of funding for the NHS, or paying for extra tuition for our kids, Boris has Rishi’s giveaways and a stunning vaccination programme to seduce voters with. He sent Navy gunboats to the Channel Islands to scare off the Froggie fishermen – emulating Maggie and the Falklands perhaps?

Boris excels at these bravura gestures, unlike ‘Ikea’ Starmer, who one wit said had all the charisma of furniture from you-know-where.

Labour mistakenly thought that voters cared about allegations of sleaze and decorating costs in Downing Street – but it turned out they weren’t that bothered. Who cares about wallpaper and sofas when you’ve beaten a pandemic?

Put simply, Labour voters credit the Tories for getting their jabs.

Sure, we’ll be paying the cost for generations, but who cares if it means we won’t die before our time?

Starmer’s biggest mistake was to pinch a tactic from the Boris playbook. Posing with a roll of wallpaper for a corny photograph can only invite one response. Which is the more two-dimensional? The wall covering or the flat pack person standing next to it?

So if Boris is fireproof and Labour can’t rely on a charismatic leader of their own here’s a radical idea; why don’t they try and explain some time what they would do if they actually ever won?

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