Hartlepool by-election 2021 analysis: how the Conservatives won and what it means now for Labour

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The Hartlepool result tells us something about national politics, but mostly it is about people voting for change in their area

When the Conservatives last sent an MP to represent the town of Hartlepool in parliament, England had not yet won a World Cup.

Their candidate then, John Kerans, was a Royal Navy veteran whose heroic service had been made into a popular film a couple of years previous.

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Now, 62 years later, a farmer and councillor from North Yorkshire has won the seat for the Tories with almost twice as many votes as Labour

Hartlepool by-election 2021 analysis: how the Conservatives won and what it means now for Labour (Photo: JPI)Hartlepool by-election 2021 analysis: how the Conservatives won and what it means now for Labour (Photo: JPI)
Hartlepool by-election 2021 analysis: how the Conservatives won and what it means now for Labour (Photo: JPI)

So what happened?

Many will be tempted to interpret the result as evidence of national political trends and media-narratives, about Red-Wall voters turning their backs on Labour over cultural issues and Brexit.

But the reality is much more complicated, and has to do as much with local factors and long-term trends.

For decades, Labour’s support in places like Hartlepool remained solid, only looking slightly shaky on a couple of occasions since the 70’s.

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But the last general election saw Labour’s majority - which had significantly increased in 2017 - slashed, with around 25 per cent of voters opting for the Brexit party.

The Brexit Party’s strong showing may have been the only thing which prevented this historic change from Labour to Conservative happening then, rather than now.

Sometimes talked about as an anomaly, this result closely mirrored what happened in Hartlepool just a few years earlier in 2015, with UKIP the beneficiaries rather than BXP.

Now it is 2017, rather than the elections either side of it, which stands out as the odd-one-out.

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This isn’t just about Brexit though, although the Labour candidate’s passionate backing of Remain likely won’t have helped their cause.

And despite what people on both sides of the Labour party will be saying today, this result cannot be explained away entirely by pinning it on the party’s leadership, current or former.Voters in Hartlepool didn’t particularly like Jeremy Corbyn in 2019, that’s true enough, but supporters of Keir Starmer will have to reconcile the fact that under the forensic former QC, the party almost halved it’s vote-share on 2019, and dropped considerably more on 2017’s total; both victories won under Corbyn.

What about the Conservative candidate?

This might change now given the scale of her victory, but it will be worth remembering in days to come that few Tories had much positive to say about their candidate, Jill Mortimer, in the weeks before the election.

And in a town where most people you speak to about politics say they just want someone from the area who knows it well to represent them, Mortimer’s admission she hasn’t spent much time there, and her comparison of the place to Leeds (!?) doesn’t offer many clues to her victory.

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Conservative Tees Valley mayor Ben Houchen - a popular figure in the area with many crediting him with the successful freeport bid and reopening of the airport - failed to publicly back Mortimer, though the good-will voters feel towards him should still be considered a factor in the Tory’s win.

And while sour remainers and and unbearably snooty southern liberals will no doubt bemoan the people of Hartlepool’s supposed ignorance for voting in the Tories, their reasons for doing so - as far as this reporter can see - are entirely reasonable and rational.

A vote for change

Rightly or wrongly, many voters have come to believe that voting for a Tory MP while a Tory government is in power will mean more investment, jobs and prosperity for the town.

Hartlepool has battled high levels of unemployment for decades, seen thousands of its young people head off to cities for work or education, and watched as nearby towns have been prioritised for regeneration.

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Despite the best efforts of many local business-owners and community organisations, parts of the town struggle with extreme deprivation and decay - around a third of children grow up in poverty in Hartlepool.

Labour MPs have represented the town in parliament for two generations, and they’ve held power in the council for long stretches of that time.

Despite being in national government for more than a decade, in Hartlepool at least, people saw a vote for the Tories as a vote for change.

I for one hope they are not disappointed.

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