The Hartlepool by-election: Johnson and Starmer put to the test

When Mike Hill announced he would stand down as the Labour MP Hartlepool on March 16, both Number 10 and the Leader of the Opposition’s office were prompted to prepare for an almighty challenge.

For the Conservatives, and more specifically Boris Johnson, Hartlepool will be seen as a Brexit-backing seat that remained staunchly scarlet and out of reach for the Tories when so much of the red wall around it crumbled in December 2019.

But for Sir Keir Starmer, whom Labour members elected because he was considered more electable than his predecessor, defeat could be the final nail in the coffin for his leadership.

Labour should, following eleven years of Conservative governments and during a pandemic (which to be frank has not been perfectly dealt with by Number 10) , make significant electoral inroads between now and the next general election. On paper, this by-election race should be a dead certain for Labour: Hartlepool has not voted Conservative since 1959, Brexit is no longer a key electoral issue that will garner Johnson more votes, and Jeremy Corbyn has been replaced by the forensic former head of the Crown Prosecution Service.

Nonetheless, a poll conducted by Survation has placed the Tories 7 points ahead of Labour just a month before constituents go to the polls. This has, admittedly unsurprisingly, resulted in the re-emergence of Labour Party factionalism. Dave Ward, the leader of the Communication Workers Union, has not only locked horns with Starmer on the direction of the Labour Party, but also commissioned Survation’s damning by-election poll.

The left’s criticism, as advocated by the Corbynista Owen Jones, is that defeat for Labour would be “absolutely catastrophic” and should “be owned by the party’s leadership.” This has prompted some Labour Party officials to play down their chances come May 6. One official told the Telegraph: “Labour would have lost Hartlepool in 2019 had it not been for the Brexit Party”. “In the context of the vaccine bounce, the Conservatives should take this seat”, the source added.

Nonetheless, irrespective of the potential conversions of former Farage followers or the electoral impact of the vaccine roll-out, defeat for Labour in Hartlepool, a seat that both his predecessor and Michael Foot managed to retain despite Labour’s shocking defeats in 1983 and 2019, may well result in Corbyn’s crowd in the Commons challenging Starmer’s leadership.

However, Survation’s poll should be treated with caution. James Johnson, who formerly ran polling for Downing Street and founded JL Partners Polls, criticised the sample of Hartlepoolians. He noted that just three per cent of those interviewed voted for Richard Tice in 2019 despite 26% voting for the Brexit Party.

So what could the Hartlepool by-election mean for the Conservatives?

Based on current national polling, there has been no better post-Brexit and intra-pandemic period for Boris Johnson. Despite trailing behind Starmer for a period following September 2020, the Tories have now registered leads in 49 of the last 50 opinion polls. Such leads appear to have solidified following the hitherto successful roll-out of the Covid-vaccine. A by-election victory is, therefore, a “best-case scenario” if the Tories are using it as a basis for the election contest in 2023 or 2024. 

One interesting factor that will be of importance to Johnson’s Tories whether they can convert, as Labour has suggested, ex-Brexit Party voters to the Conservative cause. If they do so, then there are an additional 38 marginal constituencies where the Tories may hope to challenge Labour in the next general election.

The Tories relatively new success in the red wall does, however, mean that the party can only compare the by-election to their last challenge in 2019. Even if the Conservatives are defeated, I would suggest that, provided they perform within the margin of error of the result in the last election, they will be relatively happy. 

If the Conservatives can mirror any potential success in the Brexit-backing north-east with an increase in representation in the Welsh Assembly and success in the mayoral elections of Tees Valley and West Yorkshire, then Number 10 will surely be increasingly optimistic about retaining and increasing support for the party in the new battleground of British politics.

However, if I had to put money on it, I would say that Labour will narrowly retain Hartlepool. This will enable Starmer to fend off his critics for just a little bit longer.

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