James Forsyth

Tories win Hartlepool, throwing Starmer’s leadership into crisis

Tories win Hartlepool, throwing Starmer’s leadership into crisis
Conservative members in Hartlepool take a break during the vote count (Photo by Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)
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The Tories have taken Hartlepool on a remarkable 16 per cent swing from Labour. The Tories saw the biggest increase — 23 per cent — in a governing party’s share of the vote in a by-election in the post-war era. Labour has been trounced in a seat that has been theirs since its creation in 1974.

Labour’s defeat shows that Keir Starmer is nowhere near stopping the party’s bleeding in the red wall. It suggests that the 2019 election was not a freak result driven by voters' desire to get Brexit done and their fear of Jeremy Corbyn but rather part of a realignment of English politics — and that things might get even worse for Labour in these areas. Any hopes that voters would simply snap back to Labour with Brexit done and Corbyn gone have been dashed. It will be a long hard road back for the party in its traditional heartlands.

While there are, obviously, big structural forces at play in Labour’s defeat, some of the tactical decisions that Starmer’s team have taken have not helped either. First, they chose an MP defeated at the last election — and one who had tried to stop Brexit — as their candidate. This gave the Tories an opening to talk about that issue. Second, they decided to hold the by-election on the same days as the Tees Valley mayoral contest, allowing the relatively unknown Tory candidate to link herself to Ben Houchen, the hugely popular Tory mayor.

The problem for Starmer is that the building blocks of Labour’s traditional electoral coalition are moving ever further apart from each other. If Starmer moved further to try to win back support in seats such as Hartlepool, he would risk alienating Labour’s metropolitan base in cities such as London and Bristol — in those places, Labour is expected to win the mayoralties at a canter.

For Boris Johnson, this victory is a boost. It suggests that he is keeping together his party’s new electoral coalition and it will help him after a difficult fortnight following his very public falling out with his former chief aide Dominic Cummings. These votes are also the first electoral test since Covid struck. The result in Hartlepool and the early council results suggest that voters have a pretty positive view of how the government has handled the virus, that furlough and the vaccine programme weigh more heavily with voters rather than the mistakes made in handling this pandemic.

Johnson’s relationship with his parliamentary party is a transactional one. These results show that Johnson is still an electoral winner and will strengthen his hold over the Conservatives. At the same time, Starmer’s grip on his own party will weaken. The Labour leader should brace himself for a bumpy period.