On Thursday 6th May, voters across England, Scotland and Wales will cast their votes to elect candidates to over 5,000 positions of power according to BBC News.
MSPs in Scotland, Members of the Senedd in Wales, 39 Police and Crime Commissioners and 13 directly elected Mayors, together with thousands of new councillors serving on 143 different councils will all be on the ballot paper. It is not an exaggeration however, to say that the greatest amount of media attention is likely to be on the Hartlepool by-election which takes place on the same day.
By-elections are becoming less frequent in UK politics, with fewer sitting MPs dying in office or needing to urgently resign their seats to take up new positions. The vacancy in the previously safe Labour seat of Hartlepool in County Durham in the North East was created when the previous Labour MP Mike Hill resigned. His sudden resignation was, according to the Northern Echo newspaper, due to “an ongoing investigation” and it noted that “he was due to face an employment tribunal later this year on claims of sexual harassment”.
By-elections in normal circumstances have huge political significance when the focus of Westminster lobby journalists shifts to one constituency campaign. The results are usually pored over to see who is up and who is down. This result will have extra significance as well, as it is the first major test for Keir Starmer since he became Labour leader.
This seat is as a ‘red wall’ constituency and it is likely it would have elected a Conservative MP in 2019 if the Brexit Party’s Richard Tice had not stood there and polled 25.8% of the vote in third place, only 3% behind the Conservatives.
On paper, this is a very tough defence for Labour that many have argued could not come at a worse time for a new leader who is struggling to connect with the party’s base across the North of England. One commentator even suggested that the Conservative Party’s best hope of victory here would be to stand Richard Tice himself, now the leader of the rebranded Renew party, but the Conservative party is instead fielding a local councillor from North Yorkshire as its candidate. Prime Minister Boris Johnson however is not giving up on this seat without a fight and talked up the chances of a Conservative victory for the first time since the 60s on a recent visit to the town:
“I think people will vote Conservative because we’re investing massively in the North East. But in Hartlepool, in particular, we’re putting £3.5 million into improving the hospital. Babies are going to be born in Hartlepool for the first time in a very long time.
Labour, for all its current difficulties, has selected a doctor who has been on the front line throughout the pandemic working in a local hospital. Dr Paul Williams is also the former MP for nearby Stockton South, so has strong local connections. Keir Starmer’s Director of Politics, Baroness Jenny Chapman is also a former MP for Darlington and is understood to be keen for Paul Williams to be the party’s candidate in this crucial by-election.
Despite an early poll putting the Conservatives on course for victory and 7% ahead of Labour, there is still over a fortnight to run in this campaign and Labour will have far more accurate electoral data for its voters than the other parties challenging here. In low turnout elections, not least with Covid restrictions affecting voting in person, the postal vote will also be crucial, and this is likely to swing towards the incumbent party.
I expect Labour will be able hold onto Hartlepool in the same way it managed to narrowly retain Newport West and Peterborough in the 2017 to 2019 Parliament, by under 2,000 votes on both occasions. The contest becomes less a battle of ideas and policy and becomes a ‘get out the vote’ military operation.
The Labour party, while still on the backfoot nationally with a leader who appeals more in North London than its former heartlands in Northern England, ought to be able to get over the line here. The consequences for Keir Starmer’s leadership could be very significant if the party falls short here.
The focus is expected to quickly shift after the 6th May elections and results, to the Buckinghamshire seat of Chesham and Amersham following the sad death of Conservative grandee Dame Cheryl Gillan on 4th April. She had represented the constituency since 1992 and had a majority of over 16,000 at the 2019 General Election. In contrast to Hartlepool, it is the Liberal Democrats in second place in this affluent constituency.
The HS2 rail project is set to dominate this campaign, as it dominated Dame Cheryl’s House of Commons interventions ever since she left the Cabinet in 2012. A local environmental website for example has said it has “deep concerns” about the project which it says will cause “irrevocable damage to the natural beauty and tranquility of the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB)”.
Sam Webber is a Senior Account Manager at JBP & a former parliamentary candidate for the Liberal Democrats.