The local elections this May, just 13 months after Keir Starmer took office as Labour leader, were set to be his first big test. His vision for the country and his famously methodical approach to PMQs were expected to yield some strong results, but as it looks increasingly likely that Labour are in for some significant gains, a red herring has been thrown into the mix with a contest more important than any other.
That red-herring is a by-election in a ‘red wall’ seat, a belt of Labour voting constituencies that the Conservatives were famously able to smash through in the 2019 general election, winning a swath of seats for the first time. It is likely to take place on the same day as the local elections – on the 6th of May – and, despite a number of significant Mayoral Elections, including London and the West Midlands, it is Hartlepool where the commentators will be focused.
The by-election in Hartlepool was triggered after Labour MP Mike Hill stepped down with immediate effect. Hill is currently facing a tribunal for sexual assault allegations made by a former member of staff, with the MP having been suspended by the Labour Party in 2019.
Its location makes it ripe for political commentators and analysts to make projections about how Keir Starmer is doing at his job. Although Corbyn had held onto the seat in 2019, a large Brexit Party vote was thought to have helped Hill to win; without it, there is a high possibility that it would have been another momentous Conservative Party pick up.
Recent weeks have seen a ‘vaccine boost’ for the Conservative Party in the polls, with the small lead that Labour had gained in 2020 falling, and with Boris Johnson around 5% ahead of Starmer in the polls.
Some are projecting that this could be enough for the Conservatives to win the seat, marking a significant dent in Starmer’s plans to make Labour electable again – even though they look on course to win most of the major Mayoral contests and pick up dozens of Councils.
This has been given further weight by suggestions that Laura Pidcock, one of the ‘red wall’ MPs defeated in 2019, is throwing her hat into the ring to become the Labour candidate. Her previous electoral record has been fraught with defeat in previously safe seats – although much of this is due to larger political shifts, particularly around Brexit.
The by-election will be an interesting look at where the political ground lies after the government pushed through its Brexit deal and ended the transition period in the final days of 2020. The 2019 general election saw the Brexit Party gain around 26% of the vote, meaning that however the vote splits now the Brexit Party are out of the picture will likely decide the contest.
Many of the votes gained by the Brexit Party in 2019 were likely Labour votes, however, with the vaccine rollout proving successful and the Conservative popularity in the ‘red wall’ seemingly holding steady, there is a belief that the contest will not be as easy for Starmer as it might have been just a few months ago. Mike Hill had a majority of just 4,000 after the 2019 general election, much smaller than the margin between many of the seats that the Conservatives picked up in 2019.
That being said, it is still unlikely that the by-election would return anything other than a Labour victory, but it will certainly be a significant contest, however, it turns out, for Starmer’s leadership. Whilst Pidcock, as Corbyn-esque candidate, is probably unlikely to be the final candidate, a more centrist candidate that fails to secure a significant majority would likely be used as fodder by the left of the party for what they perceive as Starmer’s lacklustre leadership.
What was originally set to be a strong May for the Labour Party may turn out to be more difficult than anticipated.