Angela Rayner has insisted that Labour has the “best candidate” to fight the crucial Hartlepool byelection in May, after a senior figure suggested he should be replaced because of a sexist tweet he made in 2011.
Paul Williams, the GP and former Stockton South MP, has apologised for a historical tweet in which he used the term “milf”. Shami Chakrabarti, the Labour peer who was shadow attorney general until last year, said the tweet was misogynistic and that a new candidate should be found. Her comments came after internal criticism that Williams had been the only candidate placed on the party’s longlist.
Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, who is overseeing its local election campaign, said Williams had been correct to apologise but that he remained the right choice to fight the seat, which has remained in Labour’s hands for 57 years.
“Whether it’s 10 years ago or not, people will look at that. And, quite rightly so, he’s apologised for that and reflected on that,” she said. “In terms of the shortlist, Paul has been working in the hospital there, he cares about the community there, he understands parliament, he will hit the ground running. We’re very confident we’ve got the best candidate.”
In an interview with the Observer, Rayner said she believed that Labour faced a “very difficult challenge” in retaining its seat in Hartlepool in a byelection to be held on 6 May, the same day as other local polls.
In a plea to the voters across Labour’s post-industrial heartlands who backed the Tories in 2019, she said the Conservatives had “gone back to type” while Labour was changing.
“We’re listening and, hopefully, they can see that,” she said. “I know that people are angry with the Labour party, I know that Brexit divided our vote, but there are bigger things that we need to look at now. That’s about making sure that our kids have a decent future and that no one’s left behind – that we can start bringing industry back to places like Hartlepool, rather than feeling like it’s a ghost town.
“We are starting from a very low base. I’m hoping we will make some progress. Where Labour is in power, we’ve made a great difference. Hopefully, the electorate will see that we’re under new leadership and will give us a chance.”
After initially seeing a huge lead wiped out when Keir Starmer was elected leader, the Tories have recently reasserted a single-digit poll lead. This has led to early criticisms of Starmer’s leadership from within the party, with many demanding a stronger critique of the government’s performance and a less risk-averse approach.
Rayner acknowledged that Labour had backed the government in some areas, but said it was an attempt to listen to what voters wanted at a time of crisis.
“People want [the government] to do well. It’s perverse in one respect, but I’ve wanted the government to do well. If it fails, that’s more deaths. I’ve lost close relatives during this pandemic. I want [politicians] to be constructive, to work to try and make things better, to stop more people from having to lose loved ones and to get through this the best we can.
“It is upsetting when you see the failures but we’ve got to accept that we lost that general election. And myself, Keir and our team are saying to people: we understand you rejected us in December 2019 and we’re listening now, and we’re offering you what we think is in the interest of the British people – that’s to work together.
“The party has to understand it’s not about the party, it’s about being a government-in-waiting to represent the people in this country.”
She said that “a day of reckoning” would come for the government when a public inquiry into the Covid crisis was agreed. However, she added that a “vaccine spike” for the government would make May’s elections difficult, and she downplayed the party’s chances in Hartlepool.
“One lesson for all the political parties is not to take the people in the north for granted,” she said. “We’re not a homogenous group. They like to call it the ‘red wall’, but, actually, we have very complex views. We’re not all just one blancmange that votes in one particular way. The people of Hartlepool will demand and expect more.
“Hopefully, they’ll see what’s happened over the last 12 months, because the Conservatives have gone back to type. Rather than looking at how they could really level up places like the north and the Midlands, where they promised that things were going to change, actually nothing’s changed. They’ve just stayed the same. It’s jam tomorrow, as it has always been.”
She said the party’s election pitch would be simple: “There’s no going back to business as usual. We want our NHS workers who have kept going through this crisis to be given at least the pay rise they were promised by the government, and a recovery that deals with the inequality that we see in our country at the moment, as opposed to the cronyism that we’re seeing from the Conservatives.”
•The subheading of this article was amended on 25 March 2021 to reflect that Rayner used the words “best candidate” in relation to Williams, rather than “best man” as an earlier version had it.