Starmer’s daunting Labour challenge made plain by battle for Hartlepool
Byelection defeat could catalyse much-needed change in party, says Peter Mandelson
Labour Party leader Keir Starmer pulls a pint at Cameron’s brewery in Hartlepool. Photograph: Ian Forsyth/WPA Pool/Getty
Hartlepool, a struggling port town in the northeast of England with a population of just over 90,000, is seldom the centre of attention in Britain. But a byelection taking place on May 6th brought Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer to the town on the same day last week, bringing much of the London media in their wake.
The tables outside The Golden Lion on the outskirts of Hartlepool are filled with groups enjoying a drink in the warm sunshine but the pub’s owner, Leo Gillen, says the election is not at the forefront of their thoughts.
“People are glad to be out and about. You know, we’ve been locked down for so long, and the election isn’t the focus in this sort of period because we’ve just been let out of jail, really,” he says.
Triggered by the resignation of Labour MP Mike Hill following allegations of sexual harassment, the byelection is being viewed as an important electoral test for Starmer after a year as Labour leader. Hill was re-elected in 2019 with less than 38 per cent of the vote, with the Conservatives and the Brexit Party taking almost 55 per cent between them.
Gillen, who is a lifelong Labour activist, believes voters in Hartlepool are moving towards the Conservatives, partly because of the government’s success in rolling out the coronavirus vaccine.
“I don’t think the country wants upheaval at the moment,” he says. “I don’t think the country wants to be blaming people. We’re still sort of in a collective responsibility to look after ourselves. And I think it’s a very peculiar election for that.”
“I think Boris is popular. I mean, he’s a populist politician, isn’t he? You know, he admits his gaffes. He is what he is. He doesn’t try to be anything he isn’t. And that seems to strike a note, you know, unless something goes drastically wrong. Boris is Boris.”
“Boris being Boris” has led the prime minister into a dangerous confrontation with his former aide Dominic Cummings, amid allegations of sleaze at the heart of Downing Street. But the Conservatives are hoping that the vaccine bounce and a recent dip in approval for Labour and Starmer will bring them success on May 6th in Hartlepool and in local elections across England.
Labour’s candidate Paul Williams, the former MP for Stockton South who works in Hartlepool as a GP, had a shaky start to the campaign after he had to apologise for 10-year-old sexist tweets. He has faced criticism throughout the campaign for his support for a 2013 report recommending the removal of some services from Hartlepool hospital.
The good news for Labour is that the Conservatives are running Jill Mortimer, a farmer from North Allerton with no links to Hartlepool who has struggled to answer media questions about major issues facing the town.
“We are a port and industry town, we are not a farming community,” says Gillen. “And sadly what I’ve seen from her is that she’s out of touch.”
Conservative polling expert Robert Hayward thinks it could be too late for Labour to capitalise fully on the sleaze allegations because up to a third of voters may have already voted by post. The Conservatives have opened up a 10-point poll lead over Labour, and Hayward believes that Starmer is part of the reason for that.
“What is striking is that the opinion polls for the Tories are only just creeping up slightly. It is much more a diminution in the Labour vote, and I think there is a sense that outside London he is not particularly liked. And the people who liked him previously because he wasn’t Jeremy Corbyn are now reassessing their position.
“What took the Labour Party up to 36 or 38 per cent in the polls actually was not getting lots of extra former Tories, it was getting lots of former Lib Dems and Greens to add to the Labour vote. The Lib Dems are now ticking up slightly. And I would presume that Labour going downwards. It’s probably not solely Keir but he’s clearly not related to the public at large. It is just a general sense that the Labour Party is not offering us what we want it to.”
The Conservatives, who have no local organisation to speak of in Hartlepool, are running a largely invisible campaign focused on social media rather than door-to-door canvassing. Labour have been more active on the ground, with a succession of shadow ministers visiting the town to canvass with Williams.
Peter Mandelson, who was Hartlepool’s MP from 1992 to 2004, has been back to the town twice in recent weeks to campaign for Labour. He acknowledges that the byelection is more important for Starmer than for Johnson and that the party is facing headwinds as it battles with the Conservatives for the support of the 26 per cent of voters who backed the Brexit Party candidate in 2019.
“I think the fact that they went to the Brexit Party makes it easier for them to break with Labour and to go to the Conservatives,” he says. “I don’t mean that they will all now be Conservative, but it makes it easier for them to go with the Conservatives, and they won’t all simply come back to Labour.
“The Conservatives are fighting on a national trend, not on a local appeal. And there’s a 10-point gap between the Conservatives and Labour in the national opinion polls and to an extent that will be reflected in the byelection in Hartlepool.”
Losing Hartlepool would be seen in Westminster as a major blow to Starmer’s leadership and his cautious approach to policy and to criticising Johnson’s government. But Mandelson believes that losing the byelection could persuade many in Labour that the party has to change more if it wants to regain power.
“For Starmer I think it could be quite catalytic. I think there’s a degree of complacency in the Labour Party about how much change is needed, and a byelection defeat would galvanise a lot of the policy into realising that they have to support what Keir wants to do,” he says. “Labour’s problem is not its leader, it’s still the party.”