The Labour MP for Hartlepool, Mike Hill, has resigned, triggering a by-election in his Hartlepool constituency. Who’ll win it? If it were held tomorrow, the answer would be pretty easy: the Labour Party.
Yes, Labour is currently behind in the national polls. Yes, at the last general election the Brexit Party, whose vote will likely collapse whether it stands as the Reform Party or not, won a quarter of the vote in the constituency, well in excess of the eight-point lead Labour enjoyed over the Conservatives in second place.
But the Conservatives’ lead today is not large enough, nor is Keir Starmer’s personal popularity rating anywhere near low enough for there to be a serious prospect of a Tory gain. The Brexit Party did not solely take votes from the Conservatives in Hartlepool, and it is far from clear that voters who abandon it will necessarily defect to the Tories.
It’s worth comparing the current polling position with the only two occasions in the past half-century on which a governing party has won a by-election: in 1982 when Labour lost the Mitcham and Morden by-election in freakish circumstances (the Falklands War) and in 2017 when Labour narrowly lost the Copeland by-election. Jeremy Corbyn was far more unpopular (his approval rating that month was -38) than Starmer is at present, while Labour was on average 16 points behind in the polls, a much larger deficit than the party’s current one.
There are several important local factors, though: independent candidates have a long history of success in local elections, both to Hartlepool council and the now-defunct administrative mayoralty. If there is a Labour defeat, all things being equal, I think it is far more likely that it would be to a well-organised local independent, or to the Democrats and Veterans, than it would be to the governing party if the election were held tomorrow.
But of course, the election is not being held tomorrow, and what we don’t know is whether the increase in the government’s fortunes has yet reached its peak. Although nearly half of British adults have received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine, with the important exception of school-age children and their parents, the lockdown remains in place. It seems pretty plausible to me that the government’s approval ratings and opinion poll rating have further to climb as a result. Labour’s polling might yet dip to the point where a Tory victory becomes likely. As it stands, however, you’d expect a Labour hold, or an independent win in Hartlepool, rather than a Conservative triumph.