The Conservative party’s victory in the Hartlepool by-election is the latest development in a political realignment that has been bubbling under the surface for more than a decade.
This is only the fifth time that a governing party has taken a seat in a by-election since the end of the second world war. And the win was resounding – a majority of 6,940 and a 16% swing away from Labour.
The results of an individual by-election should not be overstated. Turnout is much lower than at a general election and often local factors and political peculiarities play a role. Nevertheless, the result in Hartlepool is revealing in the wider context of the shifting politics of the north of England. After all, Hartlepool has been Labour-held since its creation as a seat in 1974, and Labour took over 50% of the vote there as recently as 2017. Like so much of the region, the shift has been dramatic.
A number of local factors in Hartlepool were likely important in the Conservative victory. The demographics and socio-economic situation in the town are similar to many of the “red wall” seats that switched to the Conservatives in the last election. This reflects the continued political importance of a communitarian-cosmopolitan divide. Towns like Hartlepool seem to be increasingly drawn to the Conservatives and Labour is becoming the party of the cities.
Hartlepool voted overwhelmingly for Brexit in 2016 and the Brexit Party polled well there in 2019, winning 26% of the vote. Were it not for this strong showing, Labour may well have lost Hartlepool then. From the size of the latest Conservative margin of victory, it appears likely that some of the 2019 support for the Brexit Party has now moved over to the Conservatives.
Another important local factor is the popularity of Ben Houchen, the Conservative metro mayor for Tees Valley (an area which includes Hartlepool). The mayor has pursued popular policies including bringing the local airport into public control. He has convinced the Treasury to create a free port in Teesside and move some civil service jobs to the region. That the by-election was on the same day as the mayoral vote could therefore have played a role in Conservative victory.
The new Northern conservatism
Houchen’s popularity and success owes much to his championing, alongside figures such as Jake Berry and local MPs in the Northern Research Group, of a new northern Conservatism. This is a strand of Conservative thinking primarily driven by a desire to hold the government to account on its still ill-defined “levelling up” agenda.
Advocates of a distinct brand of northern Conservatism suggest that it is more community minded and less fiscally conservative than other more traditional strands of Conservative thinking. There is a focus on the need for jobs, investment and infrastructure.
For some, this vision of “levelling up” is largely superficial and goes little way towards addressing deep socio-economic challenges. Yet, in places like Hartlepool and elsewhere across the north, long starved of investment, this politics evidently has an appeal.
Indeed, many constituencies with a newly elected Conservative MP have seen their areas benefit from money from initiatives like the Towns Fund. This has seen the Conservatives accused of pork-barrel politics since analysis shows that Conservative‐held areas (and in particular marginal Conservative‐held areas) are more likely to receive funding from this pot. But, rightly or wrongly, when voters are seeing areas with a Conservative MP are getting funding, it is understandable that they too may be tempted to vote Tory.
In part, because of this new northern Conservativism, the Conservatives have also been successful in framing themselves to voters as the party of change. This is despite them being in office since 2010 and presiding over an austerity agenda which has hit places like Hartlepool and other towns across the north hard.
The Conservatives have managed to do this because, in seats like Hartlepool and other previously Labour “red wall” seats, they have pointed out that long having a Labour MP or Labour dominated council has failed to halt these towns’ perceived decline. This is perhaps unfair as it takes little account of external factors, not least those which Conservative governments in Westminster have been responsible for.
Nevertheless, there is a widespread sense that even when last in government between 1997 and 2010, despite investing heavily in the north, Labour did not do enough for the region, that it did not provide lasting, positive change. Former Labour MP for Hartlepool and key architect of New Labour, Peter Mandelson, has said as much himself.
The results in 2019 highlighted the extent to which Labour is struggling to hold together its electoral coalition. It can’t seem to reconcile the needs of its traditional voters in post-industrial towns with those of its now-core vote in the cities. The result in Hartlepool and recent polling elsewhere suggests that this challenge for Labour goes far beyond Brexit and the unpopularity of former leader Jeremy Corbyn, which were commonly highlighted as being the key factors in the 2019 result.
Keir Starmer has made attempts to speak to the party’s lost voters with promises on law and order and appeals to patriotism in recent months but, again, the evidence suggests that this underwhelming approach has failed to resonate.
Conservative ambitions will now be running high. Looking ahead, the party may be thinking less about holding onto their new northern constituencies and more about how make further gains. There is still a long way to go before the next general election, however. The party will need to deliver tangible results across the region – an agenda that could collide with more traditional fiscal conservatism along the way.
For Labour, the signs at present are not good. The party may have to accept that many of its old seats are simply lost, at least for the foreseeable future.
Labour’s task is to develop an agenda that can appeal to voters in those “red wall” seats still within its reach as well as marginal seats in other parts of the country, and the party’s key vote in the cities. But this is easier said than done.