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Why did Labour do so badly in the Hartlepool by-election?

The Tories benefited from a vaccine bounce but Keir Starmer bungled the choices that were his to make.  

By Stephen Bush

The Conservatives have won the Hartlepool by-election, while counting is ongoing in local elections across England. (Counting in the devolved elections will begin from noon onwards.) 

The scores on the door:

Jill Mortimer (Conservative): 51.9 per cent

Paul Williams (Labour): 28.7 per cent 

Sam Lee (Independent) 9.7 per cent

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John Prescott (Reform UK) 1.2 per cent

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Rachel Featherstone (Green) 1.2 per cent

Andrew Hagon (Liberal Democrats) 1.2 per cent

With the rest divided among independents who polled less than 1 per cent. 

A thumping win for the Conservatives  but one that is difficult, with the results we have, to make precise and useful conclusions from. We can see from the handful of councils (largely, as I write, ones last fought before the referendum) that the Conservatives are gobbling up most of the Ukip/Brexit Party vote, as they have done at every election since the Brexit vote (with the vital exception of the 2019 local and European elections). 

That is enough to explain the Conservative Party’s performance in Hartlepool: that 51.9 per cent is roughly what you’d expect if your starting point is “first assume that the Conservative Party gets most of the Brexit Party vote”. (My back-of-the-envelope figure is that the Conservatives “should” have got 52.12 per cent in 2019, had the Brexit Party vote reallocated in the same way it did in seats the party did not stand.) Add in the usual small reduction in support for a governing party, even one with a good story to tell, and the Conservative performance is good: but not in of itself that surprising. 

What’s striking is the underperformance by Labour: their starting point, assuming no Brexit Party candidate, was around 40 per cent. Instead they got 28.7 per cent. 

Is it the consequence of fielding a weak candidate in Paul Williams? Of holding the by-election on the same day as the Tees Valley metro-mayoral election? Something else? We don’t yet have the other pieces of the puzzle – the results for the elections to the police and crime commissioner election, the local council election and the metro-mayoral races all being held in Hartlepool today and the local and devolved elections across the country. 

But it’s a striking question to ask: yes, in my view, most of Labour’s electoral problems are a consequence of the vaccine bounce. That will get worse before it gets better as we reopen further and the economy recovers. But it’s also correct to say that Keir Starmer has bungled the handful of calls he could make: an unorthodox candidate selection, the bold decision to hold the election on the same day as the other Hartlepool contests. Part of being a successful opposition leader is getting the few things you can control right: and while Starmer has a pretty convincing alibi for the electoral problem he has today, he doesn’t have one for the political choices that may give him a different electoral problem tomorrow.