The Hartlepool by-election could well prove to be one of the most interesting in recent memory, if not the most impactful.
The seat is Labour’s to lose and Boris Johnson’s sizeable majority in the House of Commons means another Tory MP would just be one more drop in the ocean in terms of parliamentary arithmetic.
But the contest comes at a febrile moment in British politics.
It will be the first electoral test for Sir Keir Starmer as Labour leader, the first real political event since the pandemic and it will take place in the much-discussed, so-called ‘Red Wall’.
What should we expect from the Hartlepool by-election?
The prevailing narrative to come from the last election was the changeover of long-term Labour strongholds in the North of England into the hands of the Conservatives - was this an aberration, or the new normal? When the results come in from the Hartlepool by-election and the local elections - which it will take place alongside - we may well have our answer.
And that’s to say nothing of the various smaller parties; some established, some new.
The Northern Independence Party and North East Party - which hope to one day secede from the United Kingdom, or form a North East regional government, respectively - will both hope to leverage an anti-establishment, local appeal to cause a historic upset.
The north-south divide is nothing new, nor the feeling that communities, wherever they are, might be better served by people and institutions closer to home.
But the pandemic and its handling, particularly in the early stages, has drawn them into sharper focus for many - could this be the faultline which replaces euroscepticism in British politics?
Here, we’ll take a close look at the parties standing in the Hartlepool by-election and their chosen candidates.
Which parties are standing in the Hartlepool by-election?
So far six parties have announced their candidates for the election, while two more have expressed an intention to stand.
The Labour leader visited Hartlepool on Tuesday alongside his party’s candidate, Dr Paul Williams.
Speaking before the visit, Sir Keir described issues with public services being cut in the area during the last decade of Conservative rule.
He said: “When [the Conservatives] came to power there was an A&E in Hartlepool, a magistrates’ court in the town, and a full custody suite at the police station. That has all gone and people feel that sense of loss.”
The pair visited Hartlepool power station, run by French energy giant EDF, which Dr Williams highlighted as an important source of employment for the town.
“The nuclear power station here is a major employer and there is strong backing locally for new nuclear”, said Dr Williams, “but the government has no proper plan for the future of our power network.
He added: “The 1945 Labour government gave birth to the civil nuclear industry and the next Labour government would back the industry in the future too. The Labour Party is under new leadership nationally and locally and people are looking at Labour again.”
Dr Williams has had a relatively rocky start to his campaign, after a leaked memo from his local party seemed to hint toward a railroaded selection process, and an old Tweet about “Tory MILFs” was brought to light, attracting universal criticism at a time of national conversation about misogyny.
A former MP for the nearby Stockton South constituency and a serving GP who is understandably keen to emphasise the work he has done for the NHS during the pandemic, Dr Williams’ credentials are fairly strong in many ways.
However he was a passionate backer of the Remain cause, whose loss of his seat in Stockton South - another leave-supporting post-industrial seat in the North East - is attributed by many to his vocal opposition to Brexit.
Labour will no doubt be hoping that the electorate has moved on from the referendum, but the decline in the party’s vote in areas like Hartlepool predates its recent Brexit woes by a decade at least. Many voters see it as having moved away from its roots, and feel better represented by more socially conservative politics.
It’s not only to the right which Dr Williams will be worried about losing ground, but also the left, with younger votes in particular.
Sir Keir has made a very clear effort to reconnect with Labour’s ‘traditional’ voters since taking over the party. How successful he has been in that goal remains to be seen, but the policy seems to have succeeded in alienating some activists and younger people from the party’s base.
Conservative party vice-chair Amanda Milling, who will run the Hartlepool campaign, visited earlier this month alongside the party’s candidate, Jill Mortimer.
After a relatively lengthy selection process, which some Tories have been unhappy with according to reports in the Times, the Conservatives selected North Yorkshire councillor and farmer, Ms Mortimer.
Ms Mortimer has described the upcoming election as a “very tough fight”, but says her plans for jobs, apprenticeships and investment will help Hartlepool “get back better and stronger” after the pandemic.
She said: “The Government has already made great progress with investments into the town and I will be an MP who can deliver even more to improve the lives of everyone living and working here.
She added that voters in Hartlepool have “a big choice to make” on election day.
"They can vote for me to get a hard-working, determined MP who can work with the Government to get things done or they can vote for another Labour MP and more of the same."
Those who’ve been in power nationally point the figure at the local leadership, and vice-versa. Voters will have to decide who they ultimately believe is responsible for the issues which both major parties seem to agree affect the area. They may well decide both are to blame.
Northern Independence Party
Former Labour MP for Colne Valley, Thelma Walker will be the first ever candidate to stand for the Northern Independence Party in the Hartlepool by-election, after party-members backed her in an online ballot with 69.7 per cent of the vote.
In a statement, the party said that Mrs Walker had defected from the Labour party, “to stand for democracy and to represent the left behind communities of the North”.
It said: “She is a lifelong education campaigner, former MP and proud socialist.
“We believe that the people of Hartlepool deserve a democratic socialist option, and not a candidate forced upon them from the establishment Westminster parties.”
It added: “Thelma is one of our own, a Northerner who shares our values and our vision for a fairer and free North. We believe she is the best candidate to represent the people of Hartlepool.”
Ms Walker isn’t from the area, though spent around 10 years as a teacher nearby and claims to have a good understanding of the issues that matter to people in the area.
Though she has some successful campaigning experience, the contest will be a very different one to her previous run for office.
Not least as she will this time be without the institutional power and resources of her former employer, the largest political party in Europe. Instead of huge databases of voter-info and a team of party staff at her disposal, she’ll have a small group of volunteers working mostly online, with little resources.
Her new party has already caught the attention of Labour, and seemingly rubbed up some within it the wrong way. Writing in The Times this week, former Labour staffer James Matthewson, branded the NIP as an “example of the fetishisation of Northern working-class culture”.
North East Party
Not to be confused with the other regional party on this list, the North East Party has stood candidates at the last three general elections, and has a number of elected council officials in the region.
Their candidate for Hartlepool is Hilton Dawson, who helped found the party in 2014, with the goal of winning a devolved status for the region, similar to Wales or Scotland, with an assembly and directly-elected first minister.
Mr Dawson describes his party as small, member-funded and without the backing of “big trade unions, or business, or billionaires”.
“However”, he said, “we have big ideas and an integrity which will do well for Hartlepool.”
The third former Labour MP on the candidate list, Mr Dawson represented the constituency of Lancaster and Wyre between 1997 and 2005.
He said: “I stood down from Parliament in part because I’d lost heart with Labour, however I believe that the North East Party can transform our region. I listen well, I work to empower communities, I will be a powerful advocate for Hartlepool people.
“We have a mountain to climb, in a very short time and we have all the problems of emerging from a pandemic. However, I have experience of both winning and retaining a supposedly ‘unwinnable seat’.
“Over the coming weeks in Hartlepool I am once again going to try my very best to win.”
Women’s Equality Party
Violence against women and the connected issue of equality has been brought to the fore following the death of Sarah Everard, and it was in the aftermath of that tragic event that Gemma Evans announced her intention to stand in the Hartlepool by-election.
Ms Evans said: “We have seen the huge outpouring of grief and anger over the last few weeks. Male violence is an epidemic that damages hundreds of thousands of lives every year. But despite that, the government and the main political parties still don’t take it seriously.”
Ms Evans has said she will stand down and not contest the seat if Labour agree to a number of policy demands, based around allegations of harassment and sexual assault within the party’s structures.
They want the party to commit to providing access to legal advice and independent advocates for every woman who has experienced sexual violence or abuse in England and Wales, and the introduction of specialist units in every police force “to rebuild trust and support survivors to get justice”.
The Women’s Equality Party has fielded candidates unsuccessfully at the last two general elections, though not in Hartlepool, and had a councillor elected in Congleton, Cheshire in 2019.
Social Democratic Party (SDP)
Another party which will stand a candidate for the first time in Hartlepool is the Social Democratic Party (SDP).
Originally founded with the famous ’Limehouse Declaration’, when four high profile Labour MPs left the party in 1981, the party has recently relaunched aiming to provide an option for those who are “economically left-leaning, and culturally traditional”.
Their candidate in Hartlepool will be military veteran and entrepreneur, David Bettney.
In a statement, Mr Bettney said Hartlepool has been “let down by politicians for decades” which have “gutted out public services and undermined the ability of the police to maintain law and order.”
He said: “If elected as an SDP MP, I’ll serve only the people of this town – not the party machines. I’ll work night and day to make sure the government delivers the investment and services that this town needs to prosper.”
Yet to announce
Reform UK has announced its intention to stand, with rumours that leader Richard Tice is the likely candidate. Mr Tice attracted a significant vote-share as the Brexit Party candidate in 2019, though it remains to be seen whether, with a new name and a very different political context, Tice’s party will have the same appeal.
UKIP has not yet declared a candidate but has announced its intention to stand. The party came runner-up in Hartlepool with 28 per cent of the vote less than a decade ago, though have floundered electorally since the departure of Nigel Farage, post-referendum.
Both the Liberal Democrats and Green Party are yet to make any announcements about the by-election.