Hartlepool - How Bad is it for Labour?
Updated: May 15, 2021
If my twitter feed is anything to go by the UK Labour party is in a very bad place. Part of this is presumably the online circles I move in: I follow a lot of lefties who liked Corbyn and view Starmer’s attempts to redefine the party with anything from distrust to outright hostility. Even my (largely Sanders supporting) US followers seem to have come to the conclusion that Starmer is betraying the party’s traditional values and, in so doing, dragging it to destruction.
Twitter is not real life of course (or, put more accurately, one’s twitter feed is not representative of opinion in general), but even attempting to take an objective view, the news really does appear to be very bad indeed. Despite multiple government scandals Labour remains stubbornly behind in the polls and – according to one much publicized poll - is on course to lose a bi-election in Hartlepool, a seat it has held for over half a century.
Given that polling in the UK isn’t very good at the best of times, constituency level polling is even worse, polling bi-elections is less reliable still, and the poll in question had a very small sample size I decided (purely out of curiosity) to do some digging for other information.
After going through election data for national and local elections for the last couple of decades my main takeaway is Hartlepool is an . . . interesting seat. The Liberal Democrats where were historically the main opposition to Labour but they’ve declined very rapidly; they haven't cracked 5% of the vote since 2010. In the last General election in 2019 the Brexit Party got 26%, its 3rd highest constituency level result in the country. Not only that, but UKIP came 2nd with 28% in 2015. The seat in general has often had some of the lowest turnout levels in the country.
This is an example of how UK elections are just not like US ones - you can usually tell most of what you need to know about a US house seat from its partisan lean (D+8 & so on). Labour + 8 here doesn't even scratch the surface of what's going on.
Indeed, simply looking at data from the last few elections (and putting to one side its longstanding Labour representation), I definitely would not characterize this as a safe seat. Not only are the winning margins often quite narrow, but there seems to be a good deal of movement between main parties and 3rd parties from election to election. Possibly the best characterization would be that recently the seat has become something of a three-way marginal with Labour, the Tories, and a Eurosceptic third party all within reach of a winning plurality. The exception to this – Labour’s very strong showing in 2017 with over 50% of the vote - in many ways proves the rule: that was the only election in the period in which the party had a (somewhat) pro-Brexit stance, meaning Labour could access third party ‘leave’ votes that were not available to it before or after.
With UKIP collapsed, the Brexit party not standing, and the Tories now coherently defined as the party of Brexit, this leaves Labour in a very precarious place. This is one of the most 'Brexity' seats out there. In the 2016 referendum Hartlepool voted 69% for leave. Not only that, but it is in the top 3-5 constituencies in the country in terms of its willingness to vote for Eurosceptic 3rd parties.
So not only is the seat highly unrepresentative, but it’s unrepresentative in ways that clearly advantage the Tories. I would go as far as to say that this might be – at this moment in time – the single best constituency in the country for them to attempt to pick up a seat from Labour. I would also speculate that, despite its long Labour history, this would have been another "red wall" pickup in 2019 if the Brexit party hadn't stood.
And, to throw a final curveball at Labour’s perilous position, the bi-election will feature the electoral debut of the newly formed Northern Independence Party. Despite its flashy signature policy, this seems to be mainly a project aimed at attracting disaffected Labour voters. This is a good seat for them too: it seems to have a great many ‘traditionally Labour, but now open’ votes. While Brexit and Northern independence are – to put it mildly – quite different separatist projects, one can easily imagine the same sorts of frustrations that led voters to back the former to consider the latter.
Additionally, the seat has one of the highest rates of backing insurrectionist third parties, a trait that may well be exacerbated in a bi-election when control of the government is not at stake and voters can use the occasion to ‘send a message.’
I have no idea if this novel new party will amount to anything. One recent poll had their support at 6%. I wouldn’t place too much stock in that result but – if that were to materialize - it would be a good ‘proof of concept’ for them, and a possibly terminal haemorrhaging of votes for Labour – even without Brexit party voters moving to the Tories.
So can Labour win?
Yes. There might be a silver lining the third party vote being as high as it is: it shows that, despite a very high level of frustration with ‘the establishment’ many voters seem to retain a wariness of the Tories. Anyone who’s worked in political races in the North can tell you that there still remains a feeling among many voters, not as strong as perhaps it once was, that the Tories do not represent the region, that they do not speak for people ‘like them.’
To hold the seat Labour will have to capture (or recapture) some of the 26% of voters who backed the Brexit party in 2019, while not losing too many votes to the Greens or the NIP. They don’t need all of them, but they cannot lose all of them. Overall I would say the easiest path to victory for them is to hold their 2019 vote while gaining a third or more of the Brexit party vote. Anything less than about 30% however will mean they will need to start making up votes elsewhere. Below 20% I don’t see any path for them.
Can the Tories win in a landslide?
Yes. This scenario is even simpler to imagine: If the Tories maintain their 2019 support and the Brexit Party votes shift over to them en mass they will win with a crushing 55% of the vote – and something like the 17 point margin projected in the recent headline making poll. Again, I wouldn’t confidently predict this because of the poll – we should very, very cautious about that – but just based on past election results this is a completely plausible outcome.
If Labour lose does this show the party is in deep trouble?
Yes and no. On the one hand, I wouldn’t read a loss as a clear sign that Starmer is a less effective leader than Corybn, the more obvious explanation – even of an overwhelming Tory win – will be the consolidation by the Tories of support from right-wing third parties. This is, in microcosm, essentially the story of Labour’s Northern losses in 2019: The Tories consolidated the (reasonably numerous) votes that had been going to Eurosceptic third parties (and peeled off a few Labour leave votes) while remain votes split between parties, leaving them as plurality winners in many traditional Labour seats. In this sense a Labour loss in Hartlepool would be something of a delayed reaction, rather than evidence of a seismic shift.
That said, if that problem is structural (rather than an adverse reaction to Starmer) that can hardly be said to be good news for the party. Labour is going to have to solve the problem of right-wing consolidation and left-wing fracturing, a loss will be a sign that they have not yet done so. (For these reasons I would consider any victory at all to be a good sign for the party.)
Finally, perceptions matter. Even if a change in leadership actually played a comparatively minor role in Labour losing the seat the narrative will be of a failing leader and a party on the ropes. The conservative press already looks for reasons to give the Tories a pass and Labour a hard time, they will be gloating about this for months. On the other end of the spectrum, many on the left are still angry about Corbyn’s loss of leadership, expulsion (and eventual re-admission), and Starmer’s distancing himself from his legacy. They already believe that the new leader is destroying the party and a loss will be seen as clear confirmation of that.
Ultimately people care about winning, not the details of how they won. Much less are they interested in those who did not win trying to explain the technicalities behind that loss, this has always, and will always, sound like excuses (and those technicalities in UK politics are not just complex but byzantine, the math of winning a national majority is bewildering.) Corbyn supporters love to point out that his percentage of the national popular vote rivalled that of Blair, but Blair won elections and Corbyn did not. That is what people will remember. Rightly or wrongly the last Labour leader is considered to have been a massive failure by all but a resolute section of the left. Starmer will not be treated any more kindly.
Nothing, as they as, succeeds like success. And right now the Labour Party is not succeeding.