The by-election will be a big challenge for Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer
The by-election will be a big challenge for Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer © Stefan Rousseau/WPA Pool/Getty

Sir Keir Starmer is facing one of his biggest challenges yet as Labour leader after the resignation of the MP for Hartlepool — triggering an imminent by-election in the UK opposition party’s so-called northern “red wall”. 

Mike Hill quit on Tuesday after being suspended from the party over allegations of sexual harassment. A former union official, Hill was elected in 2017 and only held the seat in the 2019 general election by a majority of just 3,595 — down from 7,650 two years earlier.

Hartlepool, where 70 per cent of people voted Leave in the 2016 EU referendum, was one of many such seats in northern England targeted by the Conservative party in the last general election with the slogan “Get Brexit Done”. 

That national contest saw Boris Johnson win a landslide victory — ending up with a House of Commons working majority of 87 — as scores of constituencies in the former Labour heartlands switched to the Tories thanks to Brexit and the unpopularity of the party’s then leader, Jeremy Corbyn.

Yet Labour managed to hold on to Hartlepool, on the North Sea coast just north of Teesside, due to a split in the Eurosceptic vote. The Brexit party, set up by former Ukip supremo Nigel Farage, threw its resources into the constituency, splitting the vote and taking 10,603 votes for its candidate Richard Tice.

Mike Hill
Mike Hill only held the seat in the 2019 general election by a majority of just 3,595, down from 7,650 two years earlier © Mark Pinder/FT

The by-election, expected to take place on May 6 during wider local elections across the UK, will be an acid test of Johnson’s popularity, the continuing resonance of Brexit as an electoral issue and whether Starmer is gaining any traction with the voting public. 

Conservatives are privately hopeful of taking Hartlepool without a Brexit party candidate, even if Tice stands under the banner of the Reform UK party he now leads. One red wall Tory MP said: “We have a really decent chance to smash Labour.”

Another said: “The choice of our candidate will be key. We need some local who gets the area. It’s by no means a given we can win this.”

The Tory party played down expectations. “Hartlepool has been a Labour stronghold for many years — this will be a very tough fight. Only the Conservative party got Brexit done and will deliver on the priorities of the people of Hartlepool,” a spokesperson said.

James Johnson, who served as former prime minister Theresa May’s pollster, said it would be a “tight contest” but that the Tories should “not underestimate how many votes the Brexit party took from Labour in seats like Hartlepool”.

The seat has a colourful political history: the former Labour deputy prime minister Peter Mandelson served as its MP from 1992 to 2004, enjoying a majority of over 17,000 at one point. 

The town has had one of England’s first elected mayors. H’Angus, the local football team’s mascot, was unexpectedly elected in three elections on a pledge to deliver free bananas to all school children. The mayoralty was subsequently abolished in 2013.

The news comes as Starmer has tried to play down his party’s chance of success in the “Super Thursday” suite of local elections on May 6 — with elections for the Scottish parliament in Holyrood, the Welsh Senedd in Cardiff Bay, councils across England and various mayoralties including London. 

Labour has slid in the opinion polls in the past few weeks in part because of a sense of growing optimism around the government’s success in rolling out its Covid-19 vaccination programme. 

Starmer’s team is also pessimistic about the looming mayoral contest in the wider Tees Valley — a former party heartland — where Tory Ben Houchen is the bookmakers’ strong favourite to win another term.

Ministers have made several announcements in recent weeks to channel investment into the area, including a new northern office for the Treasury, free port status and money to upgrade the port — where US conglomerate GE is set to build a new wind turbine factory. 

Get alerts on UK politics & policy when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article