This morning, armchair psephologists across the nation woke to a shock Survation poll predicting a 17-point lead for the Conservative candidate in Thursday’s Hartlepool by-election. While the limited sample size and the challenges of accurate constituency-level polling are being dissected over social media, the poll itself will have worried both Labour and the Conservatives, albeit for very different reasons.
Hartlepool and its predecessor constituency first went red in the seminal 1945 election, and barring a Conservative victory in 1959 by just 182 votes, it has been Labour ever since. For those of a certain age, the constituency is synonymous with Peter (now Lord) Mandelson, who represented the seat from the 1992 general election until his resignation to serve as a European Commissioner in 2004. The constituency’s most recent representative was Mike Hill, first elected in 2017 under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, and who resigned his seat in March, dogged by allegations of sexual harassment.
Losing Hartlepool at any point would be an embarrassment for Labour, although the party’s 17,000-vote majority in the constituency in 1997 has steadily declined over the past 24 years. However, losing Hartlepool to the party of government ten years into a Conservative administration will be particularly embarrassing. By-elections are often seen as a measure of the incumbent government’s level of popularity, and traditionally government parties tend to lose seats to opposition parties, rather than the other way around. This by-election will be the first time that Sir Keir Starmer’s leadership will have been tested in this way. The party’s success or failure in retaining the seat will be compared with Jeremy Corbyn’s record as Labour leader, during which time the party faced by-elections in ten Labour-held seats, winning nine of them.
Commentators like Stephen Bush in the New Statesman have made the point that Hartlepool isn’t a typical Labour seat. With the constituency voting 70% in favour of Brexit, the 2019 general election was a three-horse race between Labour, the Conservatives and the Brexit Party, who polled over 10,000 votes. Assuming, as is likely, that those Brexit Party supporters are likely to lean Conservative rather than Labour in this by-election, the constituency already has a pro-government majority of voters.
While the Conservatives expect to win on Thursday in Hartlepool, the scale of victory predicted in this morning’s poll has set up a challenge of expectation management, where anything less than an all-out trouncing of Labour will be seen as a disappointment. CCHQ has believed throughout the campaign that the Tories can win the seat, which has been visited by the Prime Minister on a number of occasions in the past few weeks. Their confidence has been boosted by a strong showing of support for the incumbent Conservative Mayor of Tees Valley, Ben Houchen, also standing for re-election on Thursday. Voters in Hartlepool backing the Mayor are also likely to tick the Tory box in the by-election.
A Conservative win in Hartlepool would be a welcome shot in the arm for Johnson’s government following a difficult month in which the controversy over payments for interior decoration at 10 Downing Street, the public attacks from former senior adviser Dominic Cummings and the quieter departure of Johnson’s long-term trusted aide Lord Udny-Lister have created a perception of an administration in chaos. The success of the vaccine programme and the potential for meals out, pints in cosy pubs and maybe even summer holidays abroad may provide a poll boost for the Conservatives not just in Hartlepool, but in local elections across England.
However, don’t discount the potential for the good voters of Hartlepool to surprise us all. In 2002, the town voted for its first directly-elected mayor, with both Labour and the Conservatives defeated by local independent candidate H’Angus the Monkey, the mascot of Hartlepool United.