Hartlepool by-election 2021: How long has Labour held the seat, and why is support growing for the Conservatives?

The Conservatives could be on course to pull off one of the most shocking by-election upsets in recent political history on 6 May.

Hartlepool by-election 2021: How long has Labour held the seat, and why is support growing for the Conservatives? (Photo: Mark Hall/Ethan Shone/NationalWorld)

A governing party has only gained in four by-elections since 1930, and has never overturned a majority as large as Labour’s in Hartlepool.

But long-term trends, both locally and nationally, and a relatively poor campaign could set the stage for a Conservative MP to take a seat in the Commons as Hartlepool’s representative for the first time in six decades.

Sign up to our NationalWorld Today newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

How long has Labour held the seat?

The first MP for what is now the Hartlepool constituency, but was at the time known as The Hartlepools, was Ralph Ward Jackson, whose namesake and great-great nephew is standing as an independent candidate on 6 May.

The original Ward Jackson stood for the Conservative party and won the 1868 general election with a majority of just three votes.

Over the next few decades the seat went back and forth between Conservative, Unionist and Liberal, until 1945 when The Hartlepools elected their first Labour MP, D.T. Jones.

Jones had left school at 12 years old and began work on the railways at 14, becoming a signalman before later entering politics/

He would hold the seat until 1959, when the constituency’s last Conservative MP, John Kerans, took office.

Kerans only held the seat until the next election when Labour’s Ted Leadbitter took the seat in 1964, which he held until 1992 and the Labour party has held since.

Labour’s slow decline and de-industrialisation

While the Conservatives were able to win in Hartlepool a number of times before WWII and once afterwards, their support in the area began to fall away toward the end of the 1950’s, eventually reaching a low-point in 2004, with less than 10 per cent of the vote.

British politics has changed an awful lot in the last 50 years, but the gradual rise of the Labour party since then to become one of the two main parties came in large-part from industrial areas, often bolstered by the trade union movement.

As a shipbuilding town, Hartlepool’s industrial decline began slightly before some parts of the North of England which were more reliant on mining. Here, it accelerated as demand for ships declined rapidly after the second world war.

But this de-industrialisation, and the significant economic and social issues which accompany it, began to ramp up in late the 70s when British Steel closed the Hartlepool steelworks.

Labour’s vote held relatively strongly throughout most of this period, though it dipped in the 1983 election, before recovering significantly during the early New Labour period.

This initial enthusiasm for Blair’s revamped Labour gradually fell away due to a number of factors, including a feeling that parts of the country were being forgotten about, and later the Iraq war.

Labour’s vote share began to decline significantly in the area from 2004 onwards, though initially this did not benefit the Conservative party as much as other parties - sometimes the Liberal Democrats, sometimes parties of the eurosceptic or even nationalist right, such as UKIP and BNP.

In 2017 under Jeremy Corbyn, Hartlepool returned the largest Labour vote in almost two decades, which many attribute to the relatively bold economic policies aimed at bringing good jobs and investment to all parts of the country.

However, it was this election when the Conservatives also secured their largest vote in the area for a long time, suggesting Labour’s positive performance may have been more to do with a broader shift back toward a two-party dominant system.

Analysis - Why has support for Conservatives grown?

Some coverage of the Hartlepool by-election will imply that this shift in support from Labour to the Conservatives has come about all of a sudden, but it’s probably best understood as the product of long-term trends as well as today’s politics.

Euroscepticism has been an animating force in British politics to varying extents over the last few decades, but it’s impact on politics in Hartlepool has been significant.The area returned one of the largest Brexit votes in the country in the 2016 referendum, and the Brexit Party attracted a big vote-share in 2019, likely denying the Conservatives a shock victory.

But with the UK now out of the European Union and a Brexit deal secure, this issue - and it’s prominence in voter’s minds - has likely faded away.

Though that’s not to say Hartlepool adheres neatly to stereotypical views of post-industrial northern towns. The Liberal Democrats came second as recently as 2005, and their vote was higher in 2010 than the combined tally of UKIP and the BNP.

Demographic shifts in places like Hartlepool mean the average age of the population has risen, in part due to younger people, who are more likely to vote Labour, moving away to bigger cities to find work.

Another factor which is common in many places which have had Labour MPs in power consistently for decades is that, to the extent that an area might be thought to have issues, Labour can be considered to be responsible despite the Conservatives being in government nationally.

There is a feeling among some voters that having a Conservative MP while a Conservative government is in office can make it more likely that an area receives funding and investment.

In Hartlepool in particular, voters have seen how the Conservative mayor of Tyne Tees, Ben Houchen, has been successful with a number of projects and bids for central government support, such as the Freeport and local airport.

Conservatives would argue this is a result of their party’s closer relationship to business, or as Tory candidate Jill Mortimer recently told Channel 4 news, because they ‘work harder’ than Labour MPs.

To some though, this is a form of transactional politics, sometimes referred to as ‘pork barrel politics’ in which funding, support or infrastructure projects are doled out strategically to those areas where they will have the most electoral impact.

In the abstract, this might seem unfair or unethical, but as a voter who feels their area is in desperate need of investment, it’s not hard to see the logic and appeal of this choice.

You can read more of NationalWorld’s coverage of the Hartlepool by-election below