The Conservatives’ win in Hartlepool is a triumph of political rebranding | Carl Shoben

Amid all the inevitable soul-searching for Labour following Thursday’s defeat in the Hartlepool byelection, it is just as instructive to examine what went right for the Conservatives. They have done a far better analysis of the electorate, changing demographics, changing economies, and successfully moulded a coalition that is becoming embedded in the old parts of Labour country. A “red wall” is the wrong way to describe it, because walls tend to stay up.

It seems remarkable that a party that has been in power, nationally, for more than a decade continually presents itself as the “change” party. And yet it did so in this byelection, electing a Tory MP in Hartlepool for the first time in 62 years, following a similar strategy during the general election.

To many voters, this isn’t the austerity party of Cameron and Osborne. In areas such as the north-east, where investment is crucial to rebuild the regional economy, the Conservatives have rebranded themselves – genuinely in some respects – as an invest and rebuild party. Popular Tees Valley mayor Ben Houchen has led this renewal: he even nationalised the local airport – and introduced free parking in town centres. It’s clear that the Conservative decision to put him at the front of their Hartlepool campaign, not Jill Mortimer, their actual candidate, was one of the keys to success.

In one of Survation’s earlier polls, we showed both Labour and Tory supporters in Hartlepool backed policies such as higher pay for nurses, investment over “balancing the budget” and renationalising Royal Mail. Broadly speaking, the Tories spent the entire campaign talking about bringing investment to the area. Labour’s candidate, Paul Williams, defined his top vision as teaching children to read, and bringing back services to a local hospital that he had himself recommended for downgrading when he was a local commissioner.

Brexit also cast a shadow throughout this byelection, and clearly remains a driver of Conservative success. One narrative is that it was impossible for Labour to win on Thursday because of the demise of the Brexit party, which in 2019 split the vote, taking 26%, and allowing Labour to keep the seat. Labour could have held on this week if it had limited the number of those voters switching to the Conservatives to about 50%. In the end, between 70% and 90% of them backed Mortimer.

In the 2017 general election, Labour’s balancing act on Brexit may have contributed to it receiving more than 50% of the vote in Hartlepool. What happened after that has allowed the Conservatives to embed the Brexit issue as a core part of its electoral appeal to voters.

While Labour held on to the Hartlepool seat in 2019, its policy of backing a second referendum was clearly a disastrous error and a continuing gift to the Conservatives. Labour’s choice for the byelection of someone who vocally supported a People’s Vote suggests lessons from the debacle have not yet been learned.

The Conservatives, meanwhile, had other advantages during the campaign and played them well. The pandemic has played a significant part. It has set politics on hold for a year, and as much as Labour supporters get angry about this, most voters don’t blame the Conservatives for Britain’s high Covid death toll. Now, with the vaccine programme a visible success, it is clear that Boris Johnson’s party is enjoying a “vaccine bounce”.

Johnson’s popularity among Hartlepool voters was clearly a significant factor in this victory. While the prime minister and Keir Starmer are almost neck and neck in national polls, in Hartlepool, Johnson had a decisive lead. His net rating (the difference between those who approve and disapprove) of +23 compared quite starkly to Starmer’s -18. Approval on its own (as opposed to net score), though, tells its own story: Johnson’s approval of 51% versus Starmer’s 22%. Our telephone interviewers throughout this campaign reported a quick response from those planning to vote Conservative and a far slower one for Labour – that is also instructive. There is a sense of apathy towards Labour rather than outright hostility.

In the longer term strategic sense, the Conservatives have been stronger than Labour in meeting the challenge of changing demographics, particularly within our first past the post system. “Pasokification” – the decline of centre left, social democrat parties seen in many countries – has been a continuing problem for Labour. Its vote has been falling in many working-class former strongholds for 20 years, but it is the Tories who appear to really understand what is happening. The Conservatives have gained broad support that spreads widely enough across England, while Labour’s growing voter strength is confined to fewer but larger majorities in cities and university towns. Yesterday Dominic Cummings said that the centre ground does not exist; you may not like the messenger, but this could prove to be true.


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