Local elections take place in the UK on Thursday, giving the British public their first opportunity to pass judgement on Boris Johnson’s Conservative government at the ballot box since the coronavirus pandemic struck a little over a year ago.
The prime minister is currently mired in sleaze allegations over who precisely funded the redecoration of his Downing Street flat but is nevertheless enjoying a bounce in the polls due to the successful nationwide rollout of vaccines for Covid-19 since the New Year, a surprise triumph of organisation that has done much to paper over the more dysfunctional aspects of his leadership through the crisis in 2020.
This week’s vote will also give the public a chance to offer their verdict on Sir Keir Starmer’s stewardship of the Labour Party, 13 months on from his ascent to leader the opposition in place of Jeremy Corbyn, as doubts linger over his effectiveness in the role.
One race set to attract particularly keen interest is the Hartlepool by-election, where a new poll has just given the Tories a 17-point lead over Labour, a devastating forecast given that the “red wall” town has voted for the party of the left since the 1960s.
Here’s why the contest is taking place, which candidates are in contention and what the reaction will be for Sir Keir should the expected Conservative win come to pass.
Why is there a by-election in Hartlepool?
The seat is up for grabs after Labour MP Mike Hill announced his resignation with immediate effect on 16 March 2021 as he faces an employment tribunal relating to accusations of sexual harassment and victimisation, allegations that he denies.
Mr Hill had occupied the seat since 2017 but the party itself has held Hartlepool since 1964, with New Labour grandee Peter Mandelson among its recent occupants.
But the northeastern constituency voted overwhelmingly in favour of Brexit in 2016 and looks likely to back the government’s efforts to make a success of a UK untethered from Europe, Labour having only narrowly seen off a Tory challenge in the 2019 general election by 4,000 ballots.
Hartlepool residents will also be voting on Thursday for the Borough Council, Tees Valley mayor and the Cleveland police and crime commissioner.
Who are the candidates?
Dr Paul Williams, an NHS GP, is the man chosen by Labour to succeed Mr Hill, but he faces a strong challenge from Conservative Jill Mortimer, a former farmer and district councillor for Hambleton in North Yorkshire.
School teacher Andrew Hagon is running for the Liberal Democrats, Teesside University lecturer Rachel Featherstone for the Greens, ex-Labour MP Hilton Dawson for the regionalist North East Party, Gemma Evans for the Women’s Equality Party, David Bettney for the Social Democrats, Claire Martin for Heritage, Steve Jack for the Freedom Alliance and John Prescott (no, not that one) for Nigel Farage’s Reform UK post-Brexit outfit.
Nick Delves AKA “The Incredible Flying Brick” also makes the ballot paper for the Monster Raving Loony Party while another ex-Labour MP, Thelma Walker, is running as an independent, as are publican Adam Gaines, Chris Killick, Sam Lee and W Ralph Ward-Jackson.
What might happen?
As of Wednesday morning, the Survation polling carried out for ITV’s Good Morning Britain strongly indicates a comfortable win for Conservative candidate Ms Mortimer, in what would be a disastrous blow to Sir Keir and his project to revitalise Labour.
The survey found her commanding 50 per cent of the vote share, compared to just 33 for Dr Williams.
The Guardian reported earlier this week that the party’s own internal canvassing within the town indicated that just 40 per cent of locals planned to stick with the party, although the story was refuted by Labour sources.
Seeking to downplay expectations after a visit to the constituency earlier this week, the prime minister said: “I want to stress that a lot of people are talking about Hartlepool - I have just been there. I think it’s important for people to understand this is not a seat that Conservatives have ever held.
“This is the stamping ground of Peter Mandelson. It’s very important for everybody to be aware of the deep psephological reality, it’s a massive, massive challenge, it would be a quite an extraordinary thing in my view if that were to happen.”
But should Labour be defeated in the by-election, and also be hit by likely losses in the Tees Valley and West Midlands mayoral races, it will expose the fact that Sir Keir had failed to articulate a vision capable of attracting voters away from Mr Johnson, MPs on the left of the party warned The Independent on Tuesday.
But centrists within Labour insists the blame lies with that the legacy of Mr Corbyn and the hangover from Brexit, two issues that are still conspiring to hold the party back in red wall areas where traditional working-class supporters regarded the party’s former leader as an extremist.
Sir Keir himself has acknowledged that the party has a “mountain to climb” to rebuild trust with voters.
“We lost very badly in December 2019, and my job is to rebuild trust, and confidence and reconnection with the Labour Party and that’s what I’m doing,” said the Labour leader, who has visited Hartlepool three times during the campaign.
“That will take time, of course it will take time. We’re fighting for every vote in Hartlepool.”