A recent Survation poll has put the Tories seven points up in the run for the Hartlepool by-election. Some have suggested the Government is enjoying a bounce due to the success of the vaccination rollout. However, there is an overall trend in this seat and the rest of the country, that is worth exploring.
Hartlepool is, of course, the first of the so-called Red Wall seats to be contested since the 2019 general election. The Red Wall is the phrase used to refer to parts of the Midlands and the north of England that have historically voted Labour for decades. The 2019 election saw the Tories win several of these seats, some for the first time in history. If the reason for its’ collapse was solely because of Brexit then Labour should resurge, Brexit has happened. But the trend in this constituency suggests the swing is about much more than that. In 2010, the Tories upped their voter share in the constituency by 16.7 points, the largest swing anywhere in the country. In 2015, the seat saw both the two main parties drop vote share with a 21 point increase for UKIP, with at one point before the counting of postal ballots, it looking like a recount might be needed with UKIP having a chance of winning the race.
In 2017, the UKIP vote collapsed and the Tories increased their voter share by 13 points, though they dropped again in 2019 with the Brexit Party performing strongly while Labour dropped again, making 2017 the only time since 1997 Labour had increased voter share in this seat. But it is worth looking at 2017 nationally, as, in this election, Labour’s manifesto committed them to honouring the result of the referendum, their position was not substantially different to the Tories, particularly in the light of the Lib Dems, the Greens, Plaid Cymru and the SNP being pro-remain. This election should have sent alarm bells ringing to the Labour leadership.
Six seats in the Red Wall that had been red for three decades, went blue. These were North East Derbyshire, Walsall North, Mansfield, Stoke-on-Trent South, Middlesbrough East and Cleveland South, and Copeland. Copeland went Conservative in a by-election earlier in 2017, and it was the first time a sitting Government had made a gain at a by-election since 1982. John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron had failed to gain a seat at a by-election in their entire terms. The Tories were competitive in seats they had been historically also-rans in throughout the region.
In Scotland, the swing from Labour to Tory was particularly notable. The Tories had not done better than Labour in Scotland at a general election since 1955. During the general elections of 2001, 2005 and 2010, they had even fallen behind the Liberal Democrats in Scotland. In an election in which the SNP still retained a majority of seats, they were reduced to just 35 seats, a drop of 21, with the Tories being the leading unionist party.
The SNP are of course, also more toward the left of the spectrum and they lost big names. Douglas Ross, now leader of the Scottish Conservatives, defeated then SNP Westminster leader Angus Robertson in Moray, Colin Clark defeated former First Minister Alex Salmond in Gordon and Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh, considered by some a rising star in the party at the time, lost her Ochill and South Perkshire seat to Luke Graham. Interestingly, Mr Robertson is the only one of the trio who has not since joined Alba.
Certainly in the Red Wall seats that fell in 2019, they voted to Leave by large figures. But Labour Eurosceptics lost their seats like Dennis Skinner in Bolsover, Caroline Flint had campaigned for Remain in the referendum but consistently called and voted for the result to be respected and she still lost her Don Valley seat. 19 Labour MPs voted for Boris Johnson’s Brexit bill in October 2019 including Ms Flint. Four of them stood down at the election two months afterwards. Six were defeated and the remaining nine all had reductions in their voter share, some considerably large, losing around a fifth compared to 2017. None of them increased voter share, their stances on Brexit not saving them. Just one of these MPs who stood in 2019, Jon Cruddas, who represents Dagenham and Rainham in East London did not represent a seat in the Midlands or the north. Mr Cruddas’ drop in voter share was just 5.6 points, relatively small compared to the others, but he held on by only 293 votes.
Since the landslide defeat to Tony Blair’s New Labour in 1997, the Tories have increased their voter share at every general election. John Major was the last Tory leader to lose voter share, though much criticised for his leadership, William Hague still managed a 1 point and 1 seat increase, and 2017 was the only one of these elections where their number of seats went down. Theresa May, though losing a majority, managed a 5.5 percentage point increase. Three of these elections have come with the Tories in Government.
The prevailing trend is that more people are voting Conservative and for parties on the right in general. Labour would be best served by looking into these numbers and understanding them and responding accordingly. By doing so they can prevent Hartlepool from going the same way as Copeland and losing another by-election to the government, though time may be against them for this seat, which still may swing back due to other issues. Interestingly, 2017 is also the only election since 1997 when Labour has not made losses in voter share or seat numbers and as demonstrated their heartlands still pushed further to blue in this race. Similarly, the Tories would be wise to make sure they understand just why people are moving to the right in order to keep the trend up.