Boris Johnson’s Conservatives have secured a crushing victory in the once solidly Labour parliamentary seat of Hartlepool in a result that confirmed the Tories’ advance across working class England.
The heavy defeat was a serious setback for Sir Keir Starmer, the opposition party’s centrist leader, whose attempt to revive the party following its 2019 general election defeat was in disarray.
Labour’s loss in Hartlepool — a working class north-east seat held by the party since the constituency was created in 1974 — was an ominous early sign for Starmer as counting continued following a series of midterm elections across Britain.
Early results in council elections across England, dubbed Super Thursday, suggested Labour was in retreat across a wide front. At 8am on Friday, the party had lost a net 44 council seats and the Tories had gained 42 seats.
Jill Mortimer, a North Yorkshire farmer, comfortably won the seat for the Conservatives with a majority of 6,940, overturning a Labour majority in 2019 of 3,595.
Mortimer secured 15,529 votes, easily beating Labour’s Paul Williams on 8,589. The turnout was 42 per cent.
The Tory victory in Hartlepool was only the third time a governing party had gained a seat in a by-election in the past 50 years. Labour had claimed Johnson was enjoying a short-term “vaccine bounce”, a reference to Britain’s successful Covid-19 inoculation programme, but early results reflected longer-term trends.
The Hartlepool result confirmed Johnson’s bond with working class English voters after he swept up support from those who previously backed the Brexit party, which won 26 per cent of the vote in the coastal town in 2019.
Many former Labour voters who backed the Brexit party two years ago completed their political journey and voted Tory. Labour fielded a former Remain supporter as its candidate in a town where almost 70 per cent backed Brexit in the 2016 referendum.
The defeat was a major blow for Starmer. Labour is struggling to rebuild in pro-Brexit, socially conservative seats such as Hartlepool, and can no longer rely on its core working class vote. In 2019, the party suffered its worst election defeat since 1935.
Starmer is now under serious pressure. In a sign of the vitriol heading towards the Labour leader from the party’s left wing, Lloyd Russell-Moyle, a Brighton MP, wrote on Twitter: “Good to see valueless flag waving and suit wearing working so well . . . or not?”
Steve Reed, shadow communities secretary and a Starmer loyalist, said: “This was a shattering result for Labour. It tells us the pace of change in the Labour party has not been fast enough.”
Reed said there had been “a breach of trust” between Labour and the electorate, that the party had been too inward looking. “We must become the party of aspiration again,” he told the BBC.
Starmer has accepted personal responsibility for the debacle and is likely to reshuffle his low-profile shadow cabinet as he tries to move his party towards the centre and shake it out of its malaise.
About 48m people were eligible to vote across England, Scotland and Wales, with about 5,000 positions up for grabs.
The votes were the first big test of national opinion since Johnson won the general election in 2019, with results expected through Friday and Saturday. Counting has been delayed by Covid-19 restrictions.
The Conservatives were hopeful of holding on to the mayoralty in the bellwether West Midlands region and the industrial Tees Valley.
Labour’s struggles in Scotland were also expected to be laid bare, with Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish National party forecast to retain power.
Sturgeon is expected to use a victory to claim a mandate for a second independence referendum, although Johnson has been adamant that Westminster would refuse to grant a plebiscite on splitting the UK.
Starmer, who succeeded socialist Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader in April 2020, admitted before the Hartlepool result that the party had a “mountain to climb” following its 2019 election defeat.
Although Labour is expected to hold on to the mayoralties of London and Greater Manchester, the next 48 hours of election results are likely to confirm the daunting scale of that challenge.