We have two years of elections on Thursday. But in England, the Hartlepool by-election is fast becoming the defining contest.
If the Tories take the seat, which has always been Labour's, it will show that Keir Starmer hasn’t stopped the bleeding for Labour in the red wall. It will indicate that the realignment of English politics is continuing even without Brexit and Corbyn. A Tory win would suggest that the 2019 general election was not a freak result or a unique product of voters’ desire to get Brexit done combined with their concerns about Corbyn, but rather part of a substantial shift in the electoral geography of England.
Hartlepool turning blue would precipitate a Labour crisis. It would raise the existential question of whether it is possible for Labour to keep together its ‘Hull and Hampstead’ coalition or whether the values gap between Labour’s metropolitan base and its former industrial heartlands is now simply too big to bridge.
But if Labour hold on, and particularly after this morning’s poll showing the Tories 17 points ahead, Labour will claim that concerns about sleaze are what stopped the Tory advance. As one Cabinet Minister puts it:
‘If they lose it, it’ll be a Labour crisis. If they hold it, they’ll spin it as sleaze screwing us over.’
A final reason why the Hartlepool result will matter so much is that the result is expected early on Friday. This means that all the other results in England will be seen through the prism of what happened in Hartlepool.