It’s been 62 years since Hartlepool, a mid-sized industrial town in Northern England, elected anyone but a Labour MP to Parliament. A maritime city, Hartlepool has been an archetypal working-class Labour seat since the end of the Second World War. Going back even further, Hartlepool has a long history. It was first settled in the Middle Ages and has been important for sea-based business, trade, and warfare ever since.
But the town has been in decay in recent years. The police station closed due to budget cuts. The town’s hospital is in such disrepair that it no longer has an emergency room or maternity ward. Parallel to these changes, Hartlepool has seen a political shift as well. Despite its long-standing loyalty to Labour, signs of cracks in the party’s strength have been apparent in recent years.
In 2010, the British National Party (BNP), a far-right party that has peddled racist and anti-semitic conspiracies, received over 5% of the vote, one of the best performances in the party’s history. In 2015, the Tories didn’t even finish 2nd place; instead, UKIP were the runners-up, cutting Labour’s majority to a mere 3,000 votes. In the 2016 Brexit referendum, Hartlepool voted to leave the EU by more than 30%, according to calculations from LeanTossup. Labour rebounded in 2017 and won big, but nearly lost the seat in 2019. The Brexit party turned in one of their best performances in the whole country, taking over 25% of the vote. Below are maps of key elections in Hartlepool by precinct, provided by LeanTossup.
Coming to Terms with 2019
This by-election comes with unusually large implications. Keir Starmer, leader of the Labour Party since last year, has taken up the task of cleaning up the mess Jeremy Corbyn left behind in the aftermath of the catastrophic 2019 election. And for most observers, cleaning up that mess means winning back working-class voters in places like Hartlepool, who used to form the backbone of the Labour’s voters. But recent polling suggests that the road to redemption for Labour will be difficult. A recent poll put the Tories ahead by a full 7%, with very few votes heading to minor parties.
But for Labour, a loss would cut even deeper than just being a failure for Starmer. In the wake of 2019, party members gave a litany of explanations for why they tanked in their traditional strongholds. Some pointed to the high levels of support for leaving the EU in those regions as evidence they left Labour to simply “get Brexit done”. Some argued it was Corbyn himself who was toxic. Others argued that Boris Johnson was a unique candidate for a Conservative. A loss would mean that Labour’s decay in these areas runs deeper than any one temporary cause. That it isn’t fixable by moving on from Brexit or Corbyn or shifting around some pieces in the platform.
Same Shi(f)t, Different Country
Of course, keen observers will recognize this story. Hartlepool’s trajectory resembles that of many white working-class areas in the United States. The years of economic downturn, the strong support for socially conservative causes, a sudden and hard collapse for the left-wing party. Democrats were shocked to find counties that strongly supported Obama breaking for Donald Trump just as Labour voters were shocked to see the breakdown of their “red wall” in 2019.
For Democrats, the explanation seemed easy – Hillary was a bad candidate, she didn’t visit Wisconsin, she didn’t take Trump seriously, she was hurt by sexism. But fixing the problem was harder than explaining it away. Even in 2018, a stellar year for Democrats, they struggled to fully reverse Trump’s gains in these areas. Come 2020, Democrats thought they had fixed Hillary’s problems, yet watched Trump improve on his 2016 performance in huge swaths of White working-class counties.
Labour stares down the barrel of the same scenario. Utterly convinced their issues are a one-off, this by-election has the potential to send the party into a fresh identity crisis and reopen old wounds. Even though it’s only one seat, whether Hartlepool is red or blue has the potential to color perceptions of the next general election for years to come.