Hartlepool fits the bill for the much clichéd image of the ‘Red Wall’ constituency: northern, coastal, deindustrialised and the tenth most deprived local authority area in England as of 2019. After the resignation of the Labour MP elected in 2019, May’s by-election has generated significant media interest to see whether Conservative appeal in the ‘Red Wall’ has endured since the 2019 Election.
Having held the seat since 1974, Labour suffered a dramatic 14.8% fall in its share of the vote from the 2017 general election. Still, they avoided the fate the party suffered in many other, now former, Labour seats across the country. The by-election is being presented by many as a test of whether Keir Starmer’s leadership has retained the narrow margin of support Labour in the constituency in 2019. Yet, with the Covid-19 pandemic having flipped British politics on its head, it is understandable that the by-election is seen as less of a test for Labour but rather the Conservatives.
The Conservative Party’s popularity during the Covid-19 pandemic has very much been a mix of the good, the bad and the ugly, from a so-far highly successful vaccination programme to the unlawful lack of transparency in awarding of government contracts. The rapid roll-out of vaccinations and the potential for a return to normality by the summer means the Conservatives have a lot to sell to Hartlepool voters.
Despite the difficult positions that both Labour and the Conservatives are in, with Reform UK and the newly formed Northern Independence Party standing, are these discussions over how national affairs’ intricacies will impact the by-elections worth having?
In discussions of politics on the level of the constituency, local-level politics are often ignored. While many are inclined to see the Hartlepool by-election as a litmus test of whether the Conservative government have made a good impression on its new constituencies, such political clichés disguise the reality of how local issues impact local elections.
The recent announcement of Hartlepool Port’s inclusion in a new Tees Valley Freeport under Tees Valley’s Conservative mayor Ben Houchen bodes well for the challenging party in an area having a long period of industrial decline. While historical allegiances to Labour-run deep in the North East, a lack of meaningful change directed from Westminster over the last half-century would understandably generate resentment for a party in power on the local scale, regardless of whether they held the reins in national government or not.
Labour will undoubtedly be facing an uphill struggle in keeping Hartlepool, with current MP Mike Hill resigning after claims of sexual harassment. Their new candidate, Paul Williams lost the nearby seat of Stockton South in 2019 and is a supporter of a second referendum on Brexit (69.6% of voters in Hartlepool voted to leave the EU in 2016). While Brexit may be over with, the political divides it exacerbated aren’t and won’t be forgotten when it comes to the ballot box.
Political commentary on the ‘Red Wall’ often sees this term become a one-size-fits-all label for individual communities, with ideas of broad social change across a large part of the country becoming central to the media portrayal of the Hartlepool by-election. What often becomes neglected is the local people and local issues, which can often have just as much impact on the outcome of elections. Understanding local politics through the broader trends in our society is a valuable way to understand why people vote the way they do. But, this cannot come at the expense of dehumanising the millions of people from across the spectrum of society who live in the ‘Red Wall’.
For communities on the nation’s geographic and social margins, the vote is one of the few ones in which community opinion can be expressed. What exactly the outcome in Hartlepool will mean is up for debate, but regardless of what happens in the by-election, the result cannot be attributed to a vague idea of the ‘Red Wall’ above the concerns and wishes of local issues. If it does, there is a risk that the reasons for the change in voting patterns are completely misunderstood by major parties, with the concerns of voters behind these changes never being addressed or resolved.
Broad stereotypes from those in politics and the media without an understanding of local feelings are what led to the political shock of Conservative success in the North in 2019. The same mistake does not have to be repeated again. By approaching politics at this level, we can see what drives change within the community and formulate how we understand national politics rather than the other way round.
Image: ©UK Parliament / Jessica Taylor via Flickr