If we ever needed proof that one of the most valued arts in politics is expectations management, the coming by-election in Hartlepool is certain to provide it. Already Labour and the Conservatives are briefing journalists on why they expect to lose – in both cases in order to prepare for the result in the early hours of May 7: by shrugging off defeat as neither here nor there, or claiming victory as a stunning triumph.
The Tory narrative goes like this. “Hartlepool has been a Labour seat for more than half a century. We couldn’t even win it in 1983, the year of Margaret Thatcher’s landslide. What is more, incumbent governments hardly ever gain seats in by-elections from the main opposition. We’d be delighted to increase our 29% share of the vote. This would show that we have survived the controversies over Brexit and Covid, and have not been damaged by Labour’s shift from Jeremy Corbyn to Keir Starmer”.
Here is Labour’s alternative narrative. “We were lucky to hold on in 2019. This was one of the Brexit Party’s main targets. Their candidate, Richard Tice, won 26% of the vote, much of it from the Tories. In other Labour “red wall” seats in the north, Conservative candidates added an average of 2,000 votes to their 2017 total. In Hartlepool, their vote fell by almost 2,500. Labour’s majority was 3,595. Had it not been for the Brexit Party’s intervention, Labour would have lost. Today, with the Brexit Party and Nigel Farage gone, a Tory bounce is inevitable. Labour has little chance of winning this pro-Brexit constituency.”
What should the rest of us make of the contest and its lessons for the state of the parties nationally?
The most important point is that the impact of by-election results seldom last more than a few days. Some of the most dramatic victories have been by centrist candidates – Eric Lubbock (Liberal) in Orpington in 1962; Shirley Williams and Roy Jenkins (Social Democrat) in Crosby and Glasgow Hillhead in 1981/2; Sarah Teather (Liberal Democrat) in Brent East in 2003. They reflected support for the centre that was widespread but shallow and short-lived. These successes were meteorites that briefly lit up the night sky, not the pre-dawn rays of a rising sun at the start of a bright warm day.
However, by-elections do occasionally provide evidence of important trends. Gains by the main opposition party have sometimes prefigured a change of Government: Conservative losses in the mid-1990s; Labour losses after 2005. That said, far fewer seats change hands these days in by-elections. This is not because voters are less fickle but because by-elections happen far less frequently. The Hartlepool contest is the first since Brecon and Radnorshire in August 2019 – before the last general election. Ten a year used to be the norm. It was possible to look at a cluster and make some sense of them: wayward individual results, and they came along fairly often, could be discounted, or at least put into context.
For the Hartlepool by-election to have real significance, two things must happen. First, Either the winning party needs a clear majority. By “clear”, I mean ten percentage points or more. Assuming around 30,000 people turn out to vote, that means a majority of 3,000. For the candidates, a winning by one vote is all they need. It is vastly different from losing by one. Statistically, however, the difference is immaterial. Bragging rights depend on the size of the victory, not just the fact of it.
Second, even a dramatic result in Hartlepool will have a lasting impact only if it matches results from the local elections being held on the same day. In particular, both main parties will be looking for a clear story regarding the red wall parts of northern England which so enhanced Boris Johnson’s victory fifteen months ago and so devastated Labour.
In particular, the mayoral contests in Tees Valley and West Yorkshire currently look too close to call. Tees Valley elected its first mayor in 2017. Ben Houchen won a narrow victory for the Tories; in the run-off count against Labour’s Sue Jeffrey, he won by 2,178, or just 2.2% of the 95,000 who voted. This was five weeks before that year’s general election. The Tories nationally were still riding high. Theresa May’s campaign had yet to implode. For Houchen to win again would be a significant achievement.
Secondly, this May will also see the first election for mayor of West Yorkshire. This has traditionally been strong Labour territory. However, the Tories were not far behind in this area in the 2019 general election. This year’s contest could be close.
So: if the Tories manage a clean sweep of Hartlepool, Tees Valley and West Yorkshire, then they are sustaining, and arguably increasing, their popularity in “red wall” England – especially if they win Hartlepool comfortably.
Conversely, if Labour win all three elections, including a clear victory in Hartlepool, then Starmer can reasonably claim to have arrested his party’s red wall decline and started to recover ground he knows it should never have lost.
And if the three produce mixed results? Number-crunchers like me will doubtless find plenty to say. But the larger truth is that it will be like the verdict of a hung jury. Further elections, like a further trial, will be needed to settle the matter.
This blog was first published by The Article website