Since the end of last year, the Labour party and its leader Keir Starmer have been struggling in the polls. This is for a range of reasons, including ongoing internal party divisions. Starmer has been personally criticised for not taking a sufficiently robust approach to the government’s failings during the pandemic.
The Conservatives have recently enjoyed a double-digit lead, amid a so-called COVID vaccine bounce – although weekend polls ahead of election day suggested Labour had made significant progress towards closing that gap.
Against this backdrop, a troublesome by-election is taking place in the northeastern constituency of Hartlepool. This follows the enforced resignation of Labour MP Mike Hill who faces allegations of misconduct and harassment.
Hartlepool, significantly, is situated in the “red wall”, a cluster of parliamentary seats spread mainly across the middle and north of England and historically held by Labour, and which heavily backed Brexit in 2016. A large-scale migration of socially conservative voters from these post-industrial, working-class towns delivered 47 of these seats to the Conservatives in the 2019 election, forming the core of Boris Johnson’s healthy parliamentary majority..
Hartlepool has been Labour since 1964 and was, for many years, the seat of party grandee Peter Mandelson. However, it certainly shares many of the traits of the other red wall seats that have swung away from Labour and the party’s vote share shrank to under 40% in 2019. The fact that the Brexit Party gained over a quarter of the votes, arguably helped Labour to hold on by just over 3,500 and prevented the Conservatives from winning. With Brexit having been achieved, this critical by-election’s outcome could hinge on where these more than 10,000 Brexit Party voters shift to in 2021.
On this basis, Keir Starmer’s image as a metropolitan, southern-based lawyer and ardent remainer may not appeal to such Brexit-inclined voters considering where to direct their vote. Yet Starmer has made it a priority to win back traditional “left-behind”, pro-Brexit Labour voters in such seats, seeing it as core challenge of his leadership.
It’s no coincidence, for example, that Labour candidate Paul Williams has been making heavy use of images of the St George’s flag in his campaign material – no doubt a response to the perception that former leader Jeremy Corbyn lacked patriotism. This sort of tactic is seen by supporters of Starmer as a move to signal to social conservatives that their interests can be championed by Labour. Critics, however, see it as superficial electioneering.
In need of a win
It should be noted that Labour did still win Hartlepool in both 2017 and 2019 under Corbyn’s leadership. So if the constituency falls in 2021 it could be viewed as something of a personal humiliation for Starmer.
In normal circumstances, such a by-election would be considered something of a formality. The opposition party would be expected to hold a parliamentary seat in a contest against a party that had been in power for over a decade. But the blend of red wall dynamics and the unprecedented socio-political impact of the COVID crisis have made things far less predictable. The past year of national emergency has challenged people’s usual electoral instincts, not least because they’ve seen so much public spending from a Conservative government.
On this premise, polls have suggested that Starmer is potentially facing a similar fate to Corbyn at the 2017 Copeland by-election, when the governing party gained a seat held previously by the main opposition party for the first time since 1982.
This would be major setback for Starmer’s leadership in his first major electoral test. Failing to hold a long-standing Labour seat would raise some serious questions about his strategy, credibility and electability. If local and devolved elections held on the same day also don’t go well for Labour, the problem would only be exacerbated.
If the Conservatives actually gain a seat they failed to win in their 2019 electoral landslide, it will have major ramifications. It would signal that the re-drawing of the British political map that has taken place over the past two elections is still a work in progress, even after a tumultuous year.
Starmer, meanwhile would almost inevitably be thrust into a full-blown crisis barely a year since he took over as leader. A loss in Hartlepool would imply that Labour remains a long way from returning to government. It is not unthinkable that a formal leadership challenge could emerge from the left of the party if local election results are similarly poor. However, after four successive general election defeats since 2010, it might also be worth asking if switching leaders would solve the problem – or whether Labour’s electoral difficulties run deeper within its brand.
Ben Williams is a member of the National Education Union, the Labour Party and Amnesty International.