“In this town, apathy rules,” in the words of a retired teacher in Hartlepool. Speaking to voters in the North East port town on Friday afternoon and Saturday morning, the overwhelming feeling I got from the residents was a sense of deep cynicism towards all politicians – one that Boris Johnson is benefiting from. Nobody I spoke to was bothered by Tory sleaze because they reasoned that such behaviour could come from any party, just as they said Labour would not have done any better at handling the coronavirus pandemic. “Same shit, different day,” one commented. This perspective is set to shape the result of the crucial by-election on Thursday.
Knocking on doors for Labour’s candidate, Dr Paul Williams, the reception was not particularly angry. This made a nice change from 2019, the organiser of the canvassing session observed. As I say in my piece about visiting Hartlepool, campaigning was not painful in the way I found it was in other places in the 2019 general election. But there was little enthusiasm expressed by Labour voters. Tory mayor Ben Houchen, on the other hand, was eagerly raised by a number of people who thought he was an effective champion for Tees Valley, bringing investment to the area. Repeatedly, I heard the complaint that neither the Tory nor the Labour candidate comes from Hartlepool itself.
Tory attack lines against Dr Williams appeared to be cutting through: several repeated the claim that it was his fault, as a member of the clinical commissioning group, that hospital services had moved away from the town (he says he was not responsible for the decision and has worked since to bring services back to Hartlepool). As for Keir Starmer, nobody was infuriated by his leadership – unlike how many felt towards Jeremy Corbyn by the time of his second general election as leader – but the Hartlepool voters I met either didn’t know who he was or expressed disappointment. Boris Johnson, meanwhile, still seemed to be regarded quite fondly despite the Covid death rate.
I did not meet every voter in Hartlepool, of course, and there will be many in the town who disagree with those quoted in my write-up. But after these conversations, the Survation poll released today did not come as a huge surprise to me. The research on behalf of ITV’s Good Morning Britain, conducted from April 23rd to 29th, shows that the Conservatives are on course for a by-election win with a 17-point lead. It also indicates that the Prime Minister is viewed favourably, with 51% approving of him, while Starmer is thought of unfavourably. Those who voted for the Brexit Party in 2019 are overwhelmingly going Tory now, rather than Labour. The poll used a small sample size, but its findings are worrying.
Because Westminster journalists prefer covering Westminster elections, and because the result is expected to be one of the first announced after polls close on Thursday, the Hartlepool result is likely to dominate coverage of these elections. While Starmer is saying Hartlepool was “always going to be tough” after 2019, it will not escape people’s attention that Labour held onto the seat that year. The pro-Brexit vote was split then, whereas now it is a straight Labour-Tory fight. There is little comfort to be found in this fact, however. The bottom line is that people in seats like this one, which has been Labour since its creation, are becoming more comfortable casting their votes for the Conservatives – and, with a Prime Minister successfully portraying his administration as one entirely separate from the last decade of Tory rule, this will be a difficult trend to reverse before the next election. Sign up to LabourList’s morning email for everything Labour, every weekday morning.