The biggest by-election in more than a decade set to be a referendum on Starmer's 'new leadership'

·8-min read

To find a by-election as significant as the one in Hartlepool in just over a week, rewind to July 2008 and the vote to determine who would represent the constituency of Glasgow East.

That night saw a Labour bastion slip away in favour of Alex Salmond's nationalists, revealing the first hard evidence of a generational shift under way in Scotland, and triggered a moment of paralyzing shock for Labour and the then party leader and prime minister Gordon Brown.

Next Thursday, 6 May, the race to be Hartlepool's next MP may prove to be the most consequential by-election of any in the 13 intervening years.

It will provide the first electoral evidence of whether the fall of Labour's red wall to the Tories in 2019 was a temporary aberration, driven by Brexit uncertainty and a dislike of Jeremy Corbyn, and shows Sir Keir Starmer doing the job for which he was elected in key parts of the North.

Or it might suggest the last general election was the start of a more enduring rewiring of British politics, with Tory popularity cemented and extending in previous no-go areas. And if so, it will start an uncomfortable conversation about the future for Labour and its leader.

Labour is the incumbent in Hartlepool, notably held by New Labour architect Peter Mandelson from 1992 to 2004, so the seat should be theirs to lose.

The 2019 general election saw a blue tidal wave sweep away traditional Labour seats in the Tees Valley, from Redcar to Sedgefield, Stockton to Darlington.

Yet that stopped at the boundaries of the coastal seat of Hartlepool - where Labour's Mike Hill was re-elected with a 3,595 majority. The Tories came second, only 1,266 votes ahead of the Brexit Party.

It was a small but important bastion of resistance for Labour in the North East.

Then last month, Mr Hill stood down as an MP with immediate effect, just ahead of an employment tribunal over accusations of sexual harassment.

None of the parties can be confident about what happens next.

The three-way result in 2019 could help either main candidate. Add together the Tory and Brexit Party votes last time, and the sum is far more than the Labour vote.

But will voters decide what to do along Brexit lines once more?

Meanwhile, could Brexit Party votes, which in 2019 came from traditional Labour supporters, return to the party of Keir Hardie and Tony Blair now Britain has fully left the European Union and politics has moved on?

Paul Williams is the Labour candidate for Hartlepool trying to pick up the pieces from Mr Hill.

He was MP for Stockton South until December 2019 and until a month ago running to be a local police and crime commissioner until this seat came up.

He was also previously a staunch supporter of a second referendum, something Tories hope to weaponise in a seat that voted 69.6% for Brexit.

He is pitching himself to Hartlepool as the doctor in the local hospital working throughout the pandemic on the frontline, who wants to restore public services whilst stressing the party has moved on since Mr Corbyn's leadership.

"Nobody has mentioned Jeremy Corbyn to me during this election so far. People are looking to the future. People can see the Labour party is under new management with new leaders nationally," he told Sky News.

Such is the schism with parts of the left that some Corbynites have split to form the Northern Independence Party, which is standing another former Labour MP, Thelma Walker, which may fracture some support coming from the left.

As he seeks to push his message, Mr Williams concedes Sir Keir himself isn't a household name like Boris Johnson, although insists he went down well on his campaigning trip to Hartlepool.

"Sir Keir went down really well when he visited voters here. And I think people don't know him that well. Over the last year with COVID-19, it's been difficult for him to be able to travel to places like this," he said.

"I think this by-election is an opportunity for Kier to show who Kier really is."

Mr Williams suggests that there are unhelpful preconceptions about Sir Keir which can be overturned in person.

"People assumed that because he was from the south that he must be from a wealthy or posh background. But he said (to voters here) his mum was a nurse, his dad was a toolmaker," he said.

"And he said a factory is a factory wherever it is. Keir understands what it's like to grow up in a household where there isn't very much money, where people really care about work, about income.

"It was really interesting hearing him have those conversations with voters and connect with people."

Given this seat has been nothing other than Labour since the constituency was created in its current form in 1974, they should have a strong case.

But the pattern of elections in recent years hasn't been good for them, losing control of both the council and the newly created mayoralty, and Labour's majority decreasing steadily in successive general elections.

However, Tories are keen to push the idea they can provide investment - public money to encourage private growth - better than their opponents.

Tory candidate Jill Mortimer, a farmer and local councillor in Hambleton, North Yorkshire, said: "What Hartlepool needs after 57 years of being taken for granted by Labour is a proactive Conservative MP who will work with the government to deliver on investment, jobs and opportunities for the town.

"You've already seen the great work Ben Houchen has done for this area. And we need a Conservative MP to talk to the government to make sure we get investment, to make sure we get jobs and opportunities."

The ability of Tory MPs to attract government cash has angered opponents, with one saying that the Tees Valley mayor Ben Houchen, who is also up for re-election, has been "sprinkling public money like confetti" around the area.

Labour has labelled the use of the Towns Fund in particular as "pork-barrel politics".

Analysis by Sky News found in the North East, seven towns have been selected for funding from the Towns Fund since November, the PM's £3.6 billion "levelling up" fund.

Five towns are in seats with Tory MPs (Thornaby-on-Tees, Darlington, Bishop Auckland, Blyth and Redcar), while two are in areas with a Labour MP (Hartlepool and Middlesbrough).

Only three areas have been allocated the money already, and two of these are in seats with Tory MPs (Thornaby on Tees and Darlington). Hartlepool is not one of the three.

The success of towns in Tory-held constituencies does not reflect the wider pattern in the North East, where there are far more towns in Labour seats.

Of the 60 places that government officials said could apply for the Towns Fund, 37 were Labour constituencies and 23 were Tory.

Asked why Tory MPs seem to do well attracting funding compared to Labour's, and whether that's because a Tory government favoured investment in Tory seats, Ms Mortimer said: "Perhaps that is the case.

"But that's because you've got proactive Conservative MPs like Jacob (Young) in Redcar, Matt (Vickers) in Stockton and Peter (Gibson) in Darlington who are all working to get the best opportunities for people in their towns."

She suggested it was a more complicated pattern, with some Labour MPs benefiting too, saying: "The government has provided opportunities around the country - Liverpool has Labour MPs, we've also got a freeport there."

The most unpredictable element of the election is what happens to votes which went to the Brexit Party candidate Richard Tice in 2019, who came a close third to the Tories.

The party has now rebranded under the name Reform UK, and its candidate is local businessman John Prescott.

He is also fighting on a ticket of getting investment into Hartlepool.

"Hartlepool needs someone who can grasp the opportunity. Get the economy reopened again," he said.

"Make sure Hartlepool gets a fair share of investment. Working with the mayor, the council, I'll work cross-party (with those) who struggle to talk to each other. I want to build relationships."

His pitch can resemble that of the Liberal Democrats down the ages.

"This is time for Hartlepool to seize the moment," he said. "If they want to get Labour out, are sick of the party system, Reform is the one. We need positive change."

The race in Hartlepool matters because of the insight it gives us about whether Labour is recovering, or still in decline after the worst election result since 1935.

Other data will be available on 6 May to help answer this question, but the rest will be about other contests for mayors, councils and the Scottish and Welsh governments.

Who wins in this parliamentary seat, and by how much, will play a big role in setting the political narrative of the summer around Sir Keir's leadership.

What happens to this seat will start to answer that question

On the doorstep, Hartlepudlians say they still feel left behind. The by-election winner will be the person who can convince voters they have more to offer.

The full list of candidates standing in Hartlepool is:

Social Democratic Party - David Bettney

The Official Monster Raving Loony Party - The Incredible Flying Brick

The North East Party - Hilton Dawson

Women's Equality Party - Gemma Evans

The Green Party - Rachel Sara Featherstone

Independent - Adam Gaines

Liberal Democrat - Andrew Michael Hagon

Freedom, Alliance, No Lockdowns, No Curfews - Steve Jack

(No listed party) - Chris Killick

Independent - Sam Lee

Heritage Party - Claire Martin

Conservative - Jill Mortimer

Reform UK - John Prescott

Independent - Thelma Doris Walker

Independent - W. Ralph Ward-Jackson

Labour - Paul Daniel Williams