Whilst the ‘Red Wall’ of traditional Labour heartlands may be a media creation lacking historical provenance, if one must refer to the idea, Hartlepool would probably be a prime example. It certainly checks all the tick boxes created by the London-based media: de-industrialisation and economic decline from the 1980s, consistent return of Labour MPs, a 70% vote in favour of Brexit in 2016, and of course, its ‘up North’. This port town in the North East (and a solid Labour seat since the 1960s) is set to hold a by-election for its constituency on the 6th of May following the resignation of Mike Hill, and the results could well serve as a sobering assessment of the Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer’s project to make Labour more electable following the Conservative landslide at the last election.
Despite the national press giving the Labour leader a relatively soft time throughout his first year in the role, it is clear that his honeymoon phase with both the party members and the general public has been on the wane. Around 10% of the Labour membership is believed to have left the party, many of whom are disillusioned supporters of Jeremy Corbyn. The latest poll by YouGov puts Labour at 32% of the vote, with the Tories at 42% for comparison. Meanwhile Johnson is riding on a wave of support driven by a combination of three factors: a successful vaccine rollout, his perceived success in getting Brexit over the line and the gradual reopening of the economy. Yes, the shortcomings in his leadership may have led to thousands of unnecessary deaths in the pandemic, but evidently the public aren’t all holding this against him.
The Brexit Party nabbed 26% of the vote in 2019, and probably largely at the expense of the Tory vote. Had it not been for Farage and co, Labour may well have lost the seat. It probably doesn’t help that the new Labour candidate, Dr Paul Williams (who enters the race with allegations from within the party that he was effectively parachuted into the seat), is rather out of step with the constituency with his pro-EU views. It is easy to foresee accusations that Labour is out of step with the will of local people. It also probably doesn’t help that Starmer is associated with the pro-EU / second referendum side of Corbyn’s era as leader. It remains to be seen whether Brexit remains a key issue for voters after the Withdrawal Agreement was signed last January.
Traditional wisdom dictates that incumbent ruling parties seldom succeed in by-elections, but one would be a fool to rely on traditional wisdom in these strange times. Whilst by-elections have a tendency of having their larger political relevance overstated, there has not been one held since 2019. It’s been a long 18 months since then, and it’s no wonder that the political commentariat have been drawn to Hartlepool – something is happening at last. Truth be told, however, it is more likely that the local elections taking place on the same day will prove to be more informative.
That being said, the Hartlepool result may still be a good litmus test for Starmer’s electoral credibility , and with every good political drama there is a twist. In this case, enter the Northern Independence Party, stage left. Once assumed to be little more than a social media phenomenon with little real-world legitimacy, they are running their own candidate, the former Labour politician Thelma Walker. Whilst they are unlikely to win many people over to their idea of creating a united nation of ‘Northumbria’ (as opposed to the current county of Northumbria), Walker is an experienced MP (serving as the Member for Colne Valley from 2017 and 2019 and was the Parliamentary Private Secretary to John McDonnell when he was the Shadow Chancellor) and credible left wing candidate. Furthermore, it will be interesting to see if the NIP party pick up any stray protest votes and have a slight UKIP-type effect on the Labour vote share.
The Social Democratic Party (yes, you read that correctly – the party did not totally dissolve into the Liberal Democrats at the end of the 1980s, and limps on as a smaller operation) is also fielding a candidate, as is the Women’s Equality Party. If they garner any significant number of votes that would certainly be interesting, albeit highly unlikely.
At the last election Labour was able to secure a 3500 majority. Whilst it would be quite a shock to Starmer’s system if they outright lost the seat to the Conservatives, more generally any rise or fall in the vote share is the best evidence we have on whether Starmer is able to succeed where Corbyn (at least by 2019) could not. Once upon a time the Prince of Darkness himself, Peter Mandelson, was the MP for Hartlepool. Perhaps the only certainty going into this by-election is that he wouldn’t have a chance if he ran today.