Boris Johnson should enjoy byelection win – there may be less good news ahead

Keir Starmers’s tactical mistakes contribute to Labour’s crushing defeat in Hartlepool

One of the most deprived towns in England, Hartlepool has been in Labour’s hands for half a century but it was always going to be a struggle to hold the seat in Thursday’s byelection. The party held Hartlepool in 2019 with just 38 per cent of the vote, with the Conservatives taking 29 per cent and Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party on 26 per cent.

If anything, Jill Mortimer’s 52 per cent was a little shy of what might have been expected as the Brexit Party vanished and the right-wing vote united behind the Conservatives. What should worry Keir Starmer is that Labour’s vote declined by 9 per cent, a pattern repeated in local elections across the north-east of England.

Labour made tactical mistakes too, most of which can be laid directly at Starmer's door. The party's candidate Paul Williams was a former MP for a neighbouring constituency who not only campaigned against Brexit – Hartlepool was 70 per cent in favour of leaving the EU – but voted repeatedly at Westminster to try to thwart it.

Labour headquarters imposed Williams on Hartlepool in a one-person shortlist and Starmer signed off on the decision to hold the byelection on the same day as local elections, apparently to save money. This allowed Mortimer, a weak candidate who was unfamiliar with the town, to coast to victory on the coattails of Ben Houchen, the popular Conservative mayor of Tees Valley.

Most of England’s local election results were not announced overnight and Labour can hope for victories elsewhere, including in London and Manchester. But the loss of Hartlepool has set the news agenda for now, prompting competing analyses of Labour’s failure from the party’s left and right.

Those on the left of the party complain that Starmer has abandoned the successful policy formula that saw Jeremy Corbyn lead Labour to a 40 per cent vote share, depriving Theresa May of her majority at Westminster. They are contemptuous of Starmer's efforts to win back former Labour voters in the old industrial heartlands by wrapping himself in the flag and talking up his commitment to a strong defence.

The party’s right wing blame Corbyn for Labour’s disastrous performance in 2019, when its vote share fell to 32 per cent and lost 60 seats. They want Starmer to go further in his efforts to rebrand Labour, to purge the left, replace underperforming shadow ministers and reform party structures.

Vaccine rollout

Starmer's difficulty is that his efforts to appeal to former Labour voters with conservative values risk alienating the party's younger, better educated voters, some of whom are increasingly attracted to the Greens.

Winning Hartlepool will persuade Conservatives that Boris Johnson's appeal in the so-called Red Wall can survive Corbyn's departure and the loss of Brexit as an issue. The governing party undoubtedly benefited from the successful vaccine rollout but the result will reassure MPs, whose relationship with Johnson is almost wholly transactional, that the scandals swirling around the prime minister are less important than the fact that he is a vote-winner.

Johnson ought to enjoy his party's success on Friday because Saturday could bring more unwelcome results from Scotland, where a pro-independence majority would advance the prospect of his greatest nightmare, the break-up of the United Kingdom.