Tuesday 16 March 2021

Previewing the Hartlepool By-Election

Who doesn't like a parliamentary by-election, especially as a record number of days have elapsed since the last one? But Hartlepool? This will prove very interesting. A contest in a so-called red wall town is a perfect storm for all the obsessions driving the commentariat at the moment. Is another working class town going to fall to the Tories? Might Keir Starmer's Blue Labourism be vindicated on the North East's doorsteps? Might the ghost of Brexit past be laid to rest? And the government's Coronavirus record going to be affirmed, found wanting, or even treated as an issue?

Let's consider the scene. The bookies fancy the Tories' chances, and this is where the money is flowing. And superficially, their chances look good. Scanning the 2019 result, the combined Brexit Party and the Tory vote of 22,472 easily surpassed the 15,464 votes polled by Labour. As for the local borough council, its chamber is a bit of a curio. The authority is led by an Independent/Tory/Veterans' and People's Party(!?) alliance who are backed by another group of indies and, interestingly, the For Britain Movement. That's right, the Tories run the council thanks to a formal agreement they have with a fascist party. Therefore, a substantial anti-Labour vote does exist and, as we saw in Stoke, a canny use of local government can undermine support for incumbent Labour MPs. Indeed, while most of the country can look forward to big council tax rises, the Indy/Tory/Fash coalition in Hartlepool have frozen it. Lastly, the mayor of the Teesside combined authority is also a Tory and does not appear to have made any egregious missteps since his election in 2017, though looking after a regen budget sans the messy and inglorious responsibilities of the lower tier of local government can make anyone look good.

Therefore, the seat has a history of supporting the Tories in line with the wider region. The Conservatives can call upon another advantage in this by-election: the age of the voters. In 2019, we saw how ageing constituency profiles in former Labour strongholds helped the Tories. Older voters were overrepresented in these seats, older voters were disproportionately favourable toward Brexit (because reasons), and older voters are always more likely to show up (or post their votes in). The Tories certainly had all their ducks in a row. In the context of a by-election, the differential turnout by age is amplified. Second order elections like by-elections, local contests, police and crime commissioner votes, etc. do not matter to most and turnout is always lower versus a general election. The problem is, turnout drops lower among younger than it does among older groups, giving the Tories an apparent advantage.

All sewn up then? Not quite, and the clue is in the 2019 vote tallies. Consider the situation at that general election. The fevered character of debates, the sense of Brexit hanging over absolutely everything. In this crunch contest in which the Tories clearly and unambigously stood for getting Brexit done while Labour effectively promised to undo the 2016 vote did the trick for Boris Johnson, but not where the voters in Hartlepool were concerned. 10,603 of them went for the Brexit Party, significantly bringing down Labour's vote. In other words, under these circumstances thousands still couldn't bring themselves to vote Tory. With politics still polarised but less febrile and with Brexit done, the question is where do these voters go? I would hazard a guess and say most will stay home, but enough are going to return to Labour to get the party over the finishing line.

How the by-election is handled does matter. This isn't as high stakes as the Stoke Central by-election, but it is important for Keir Starmer's leadership that Labour put in a good showing. Back in January, this blog noted a barely perceptible unease working its way through the back benches and the centrist commentariat, which shortly thereafter blew up into the first squall of turbulence blowing in from established politics. Now ahead of May's super Thursday with local elections, PCC elections, Welsh and Scottish elections, and mayoral elections, outside of the left and a handful of Labour First types in the PLP's opinion he's safe even if Labour didn't do great. If, however, things haven't turned around by 2022 that's when the knives come out. This in mind, the Hartlepool by-election is unwelcome. A bad result in a seat held by Labour since the 1930s could concentrate minds more keenly, and lead to jitters and manoeuvres much earlier than planned.

The campaign, then, matters. Naturally, the NHS will be front and centre because Labour thinks hospitals and nurses are a magic bullet vote winner. It's not. The party will steer away from the disastrous economic impact of Brexit, but might talk up the horrors of the Coronavirus record including, if the party has any sense, Tory corruption and cronyism. Whatever. As long as the party is seen to oppose the Tories it can win back voters from the Brexit Party, and tie the by-election candidacy in to Hartlepool Labour's campaign priorities ahead of the district elections. In other words, a campaign rooted in local concerns is possible and can be a goer.

Candidacy matters too. According to the words of the wise around Westminster, former Stockton MP and current Cleveland PCC candidate Paul Williams is the firm favourite to take up the reins. Laura Pidcock, also from this part of the world, has been tipped too. Whoever emerges, the timetable for selection is extremely tight with longlisting and shortlisting happening Thursday/Friday with the selection over the weekend. As the lists are determined by the NEC, one can assume the leader's majority isn't about to give a popular leftwinger the nod. If Paul is the favoured candidate, there is very significant Brexit baggage there, having broken the party whip six times to vote for a second EU referendum. Depending on the campaign's dynamics, this could become an issue if trust becomes a central talking point. But if he gets the selection, turning out activists will be difficult thanks to previously gushing over Saudi Arabia following a jolly to the absolutist kingdom. Not ideal.

Looking at the lay of the land right now, I would say Hartlepool is going to be a Labour hold provided the party does nothing daft like picking the wrong candidate and making the selection a big by-election talking point. The quick timetable might signify the imminence of shenanigans, but also minimises the length of time the local press can wind the speculation clock. Labour can win by strengthening its opposition to the Tories and play to the anti-Tory instincts of residents. Forget the flag waving stuff and appeasing the Tory editorial offices. Our people want to see a party sticking up for them and their community. If Labour is seen doing so it will be rewarded accordingly.

Image Credit


Anonymous said...

No offence intended, but I think you are understandably whistling in the dark. If Labour retain Hartlepool it will be spun as a victory for Starmer and company and therefore encourage another round of anti-Labour activities in the party. But it's much more likely that Labour will lose Hartlepool, in which case it will be spun as a disaster caused by the evil Corbyn and his Iranian backers, which will encourage another round of anti-Labour activities in the party.

I would love to be wrong, mark you.

Phil said...

Yes, but this post isn't about the implications of a Labour victory per se apart from the aside on the state of opinion in the PLP. It's about the likelihood of a Labour hold.

David Timoney said...

Hartlepool is being presented by many as a "red wall" seat, but it would be more accurate to say that it's a Brexit seat, which means it has had greater similarities with distant Thurrock than nearby Bishop Auckland in recent years. Its vote dynamic since 2015 has reflected the hunt for the most effective Brexit option. UKIP came 2nd in 2015, with both Labour & the Tories losing 7% in vote share. Both parties rebounded in 2017, by 17% & 13% respectively, as UKIP crashed. In 2019 the BXP came a strong 3rd, eroding Labour by 15% & the Tories by 5%.

If the Tories run this election as a combined celebration of Brexit & the vaccination programme, & if Labour appoint a uber-remainer candidate, then the blues might just win it. Starmer's calculation has been that accepting Brexit will neutralise the issue, & that might well be correct in many other seats, but but I suspect that Hartlepool isn't going to let go of its obsession with Brexit that easily. When you add in a lack of enthusiasm among some (genuinely traditional) Labour voters at Starmer's authoritarian & reactionary turn, this looks dicey for the reds.

Jim Denham said...

Labour's best bet, in view of the self-evident disaster the is Brexit, would be to run as the "reverse Brexit" party. But of course Starmer is too cowardly to do that.

M said...

Yet again, practically nobody who actually voted for it sees Brexit as a "self-evident" disaster - and Hartlepool did so by 2 to 1.

Moralistic pronouncements about "cowardice" don't come in to it.

Unless, of course, you actually think Labour becoming the party of big cities/university towns and practically nowhere else is a *good* idea? "Heightening the contradictions" or similar galaxy brainery??

Meanwhile in the real world that the vast majority of us live in, the strategy that Starmer has pursued is seen as pragmatic and realistic. Even to many who are very critical of him in other respects.

Boffy said...

"Unless, of course, you actually think Labour becoming the party of big cities/university towns and practically nowhere else is a *good* idea?"

Well, if its in those places that the working-class core of Labour's support and the basis of moving forward to Socialism resides, then yes, of course, its a good idea. But, it assumes that this same working-class that resides in those places, does not also exist in other places such as Hartlepool. What Starmer's cowardly approach does is to say to that core working-class support not just in the cities, but also in those "red wall" seats, we don' give a toss about you or Socialism, we will abandon you in order to chase after reactionary nationalistic voters instead.

There was a time when Socialism was seen as Peasant Socialism, and the idea was that it would be created in rural areas by small peasants and their little villages. It was never going to happen, and itself became reactionary, as Lenin describes in relation to Russia. Socialists instead had to look to the cities and the industrial workers as their base, and having done so they would drag the rural labourers, and even some of the peasants behind them, in a process of Permanent Revolution.

The cities, and the new young working-class within them fulfils the same role today, and those chasing after a long-gun working-class and the economy that gave rise to it, play the same reactionary role today as the Sismonidists and Peasant Socialists did back then.