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7 May 2021

How Labour lost the Hartlepool by-election

There is a crisis of confidence in politics in Hartlepool – but Labour is bearing the brunt of it.

By Ailbhe Rea

Paul Williams and David Lammy are standing on a street corner in Hartlepool in the rain, in a carefully socially distanced circle of people. Behind them stands a long-abandoned, boarded-up shop that was being used as a cannabis den, a Labour aide informs me. Over the wind and the rain you catch snippets of the conversation. “It feels like we’re managing decline,” says a leader of a local youth club. “Your anti-social behaviour statistics are shocking,” Lammy, Labour’s shadow justice secretary, says as he shakes his head. “It boils down to a lack of police on the streets.” Williams, Labour’s candidate, tries to emote from behind his mask. A photographer with a Labour badge circles around the group, taking pictures. 

They pose for some photographs with Labour council candidates, at obligatory boyband-photoshoot distance, then a car rushes up to whisk Lammy off to another photo opportunity outside a pharmacy. Williams and his team dash off too. The Labour machine is gone, and the street is quiet again.

That was last week, as Labour fought to hold on to Hartlepool in yesterday’s Westminster by-election. This seat has had a Labour MP since 1964, and the by-election had come to be understood as the first big test of Keir Starmer’s leadership and of the party’s ability to recover in its former “Red Wall” heartlands, where it was heavily defeated under Jeremy Corbyn at the 2019 general election. But Labour has lost Hartlepool after a swing of 16 points from them to the Conservatives, who overturned Labour’s majority of 3,595 votes and won one of 6,940.

***

The Labour campaign already has a smell of desperation about it when I meet them.

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“Have you heard about our fantastic candidate, Dr Paul Williams?” a keen Labour activist asks an elderly gentleman who has answered his door in Seaton Carew, a seaside village a few minutes’ drive down the coast from Hartlepool’s centre. He is not voting Labour, he tells the canvasser, saying he has read that Williams was involved in the decision to close critical care at Hartlepool hospital (Williams, an NHS doctor, was indeed on the board that consulted on that decision). The man speaks of the party’s “betrayal” of voters over Brexit, a failure to be “the real party of the working class”, and notes that Williams was the MP for Stockton South between 2017 and 2019, a seat that voted Leave, but spent his brief parliamentary career opposing Brexit. The Labour canvasser looks uncomfortable. “Isn’t Brexit done?” they ask. “I don’t think it is, no,” he retorts. “What can Labour do to win back your trust?” they ask. He isn’t sure. I ask when he left Labour. “I’ve never voted Labour,” he concedes. 

These were some of the recurring criticisms of the choice of Paul Williams as Labour’s candidate and not all of them came from committed opponents of the party. This candidate was directly imposed on the constituency by Starmer’s team, albeit with support from the local party’s ruling executive. He is understood to have been the choice of Jenny Chapman, the former Labour MP who encouraged Starmer to stand for Labour leader, chaired his leadership campaign, and is now his close aide. She, like Williams, was one of the Labour casualties of the 2019 general election, when both lost their “Red Wall” seats. Labour colleagues were not delighted at the decision not to hold an open selection process for Williams, especially when it turned out that this former MP had failed to scrub his social media of old posts praising Saudi Arabia and discussing “Tory MILFs”, for which he had to apologise. 

The Labour campaign finds more encouragement at other houses. “I’ve literally just put the tea on,” a frazzled mum with a baby on her hip says. “But I always vote Labour,” she calls out as she closes the door. This is the story of Hartlepool and a part of Labour’s struggle here: the town has fewer and fewer Labour-voting young parents with babies on their hips, but just as many committed Conservative older homeowners, while older Labour voters are increasingly likely to move away from Labour too. 

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***

Hartlepool feels badly served by all politicians. “They have done nothing for us. They do nothing for us,” says Sam Lee, a local businesswoman who decided to stand as an independent candidate in the seat, never having been a member of a political party before. She promises to be a local champion for Hartlepool and to bring jobs to the area, as someone who cares about and understands the town and its potential. Hers is a promise echoed by several of the other 16 candidates in this diverse race, including Adam Gaines, another local, who runs a pub in the town. Lee tells followers in one of her Facebook broadcasts that electing her would send a message from Hartlepool “that we are sick of politicians”. She goes on to come third in the race, with 9.7 per cent of the vote share.

Ralph Ward-Jackson, another independent candidate who would go on to do rather less well, shares this feeling, but from a rather different perspective. His ex-wife, Kate Fall, was David Cameron’s deputy chief of staff, and as a couple they were part of the famous “Notting Hill set” at the heart of the Cameron project. “I’ve grown increasingly disillusioned in my life with professional politicians, many of whom I used to know quite well,” he tells me. “I kind of felt that my disillusionment with the professional political class and with the two main parties kind of mirrored the town’s growing disillusionment.”

He strides around the Headland area at the northern end of the town, larger than life, in a crumpled linen jacket (“I hope he’s not cold in that light jacket,” an old lady murmurs behind him). Ward-Jackson is the great-great-great-nephew of the founder of the town and his namesake: the park and local Wetherspoons both bear his name, which was “a laugh” when he first returned to Hartlepool, he admits. But he points out the sites in the town, and talks about its history, demonstrating a sincere and obvious feeling for the place and its people. He “reconnected politically” with the town over Brexit, but then it became about a wider frustration with how politics has treated Hartlepool. “I don’t feel that this town has benefited from either main party. I honestly don’t think they give a damn about it.”

Hartlepool’s landscape testifies to that feeling. Paul Williams sums it up, standing on that street corner in the rain. “Hartlepool seems under the last 11 years to have just lost: lost the police [after cuts of 500 police officers], lost our police cells,” he tells me. “We’ve lost hospital services, we even lost our magistrates’ court, so victims have to travel to another town in order to have their day in court. We wanted to listen to people talking about that.” He repeats four or five times that Labour is “listening”. This is one of the most deprived local authorities in England: jobs, and these shut or struggling public services, are cited by every candidate and every voter as their priorities.

Boris Johnson stands beside Jill Mortimer, the Conservative by-election candidate who would go on to become the constituency’s first Conservative MP. She says Hartlepool needs a change. “You’ve been taken for granted for far too long,” she shakes her head. The Prime Minister says that if Mortimer is elected she’ll work with him to deliver more local jobs, extra investment and more police to the area. The caption on their video makes it more explicit: “Labour have taken Hartlepool for granted for 57 years,” it reads. 

There is a clear sense among voters that having had a Labour MP here for decades – often accompanied by a Labour-led council – has not served them well, not least after the last Labour MP resigned amid allegations of sexual harassment, triggering this by-election. There is a crisis of confidence in Labour. “And you could add to that [in] the Labour council as well,” Williams says. The council, until recently under Labour control, “stopped listening to people”, he acknowledges. “We’re under new leadership nationally because there was a crisis of confidence in the Labour leader at the last election. But we’re also under new leadership locally.” It is striking to have a by-election candidate so keen to chip in with criticisms of his party. When the issue of lost confidence in politics and politicians comes up, Labour’s approach is to agree: we have let you down, but now we are listening. Williams, of course, does mention – once – that cuts to the police were a Conservative government decision. But mostly he speaks about struggling and closed public services in the same passive voice that everyone here uses – the magistrates’ court was closed, we had our police numbers cut – without much clarity that these were Conservative government decisions.

I meet Hilton Dawson, a kindly older man in a checked suit, on the Hartlepool Marina, where he is helping himself to Nachos. He was the Labour MP for Lancaster and Wyre between 1997 and 2005 – “a Blair babe”, he chuckles about his election to parliament in that Labour landslide. “This is the first time I’ve stood for parliament since I was elected in 2001. Goodness – 20 years ago.” He is the candidate for the North East Party, of which he is a founding member, campaigning for devolution for the north-east of England, in the form of an assembly elected by proportional representation while remaining within the UK. Another former Labour MP, Thelma Walker, also stood in the race, but for the Northern Independence Party, which campaigns for a fully independent north of England.

“The worst thing about north-east England is this sort of Labour hegemony,” Dawson says, “which has existed for generations now, and which has just been a dead hand, quite honestly, on the region. I wouldn’t have stayed in Labour as long as I did if I’d been a member of the Labour Party in north-east England. I represented a university constituency, a constituency which had been in the hands of the Tories for ages, where there was a much more vibrant and participative approach to politics than there is here. But Labour in the north-east is just crushingly self-interested and self-concerned and driven by its own agendas rather than listening to people.”

***

Hartlepool has a long Labour history, but has always demonstrated an anti-establishment streak. This is an area where Peter Mandelson, the New Labour grandee and the town’s former MP, polled ahead of the Labour Party nationally each time he stood. It elected a man standing as H’Angus the Monkey, the Hartlepool football club’s mascot, as mayor, and re-elected him (as himself, Stuart Drummond) in 2005 and 2009. It also, crucially, saw a quarter of voters vote for the Brexit Party in the 2019 general election: behind Labour and the Conservatives, but the highest Brexit Party vote share in almost any Labour-held seat. The question in this by-election was where that Brexit Party vote would go, and whether the seat should have been thought of as Labour-held going into the race or, in fact, already Conservative-held, given the way that vote would be expected to split. (Stephen Bush outlines the case for both, but makes the point that an opposition party on track to win a majority in a few years’ time would be able to win in Hartlepool from either base.) 

“We have a Labour candidate who lost his seat in Stockton South coming here,” complains an elderly woman sitting with her sister on the Headland. “And we have a Conservative candidate who’s never lived here before.” Jill Mortimer is a councillor in Thirsk, 32 miles away. “Thirsk?” Both sisters shake their heads and roll their eyes. They have always been Labour voters, but are favouring the independent Sam Lee. “But I tell you what, I’m going to vote Conservative for the mayor, Ben Houchen.” This was the Conservative Party’s great hope: that the appeal of Ben Houchen, the hugely popular incumbent Tees Valley mayor, combined with the success of the vaccine roll-out, a frustration at politics that is mainly directed towards the Labour Party, and the promise of “change” and much-needed investment, would bring the Conservatives over the line here. And it did. 

By the time I say goodbye to the Labour campaign, Williams is already sounding uncertain. “People here are so kind and friendly as well, even when they don’t agree with you. They’ve got time for you. And I think that’s a difference from previous elections. People are willing to listen to Labour. And they’re willing to give us the time of day – they’re considering. Now whether or not they actually turn out to vote for us as well – I hope they do – they are considering us. So there’s definitely a move back towards Labour. We only got 37.7 per cent of the vote at the last election here. I am very confident we’ll get more than that.” 

But it was already clear to some of the candidates that Labour was not going to win. “Labour have a reputation here for being very tribal and for not being willing to work with others. [Voters] think if they elected another Labour MP that he is not going to be able to work with the Conservative mayor and… refuse to work with the government,” Rachel Featherstone, the Green candidate, says. That message has really cut through within Hartlepool. They think the only way that we’ll get money, we’ll get jobs, is to vote Conservative.”