In a historic feat, Britain’s ruling Conservative Party won the by-election in a key northeast constituency on Friday, a seat that had been in the hands of the opposition Labour Party since its creation in 1974.
Jill Mortimer won the seat in Hartlepool for the center-right Conservatives with almost double the votes of her center-left Labour rival, making for a sensational 16-point swing from Labour to Conservative.
The port town of Hartlepool is in the northeast of England, historically a Labour stronghold.
Mortimer said in her victory speech: “Labour have taken people in Hartlepool for granted for too long.
“I heard this time and time again on the doorstep, and people have had enough and now, through this result, the people have spoken and have made it clear it is time for change.”
Prime Minister and Conservative Party leader Boris Johnson is expected to visit Hartlepool later.
The by-election was triggered by the resignation of Labour MP Mike Hill, set to face a tribunal later this year into allegations of sexual harassment. He has denied the claims.
Although Labour has held Hartlepool for decades, the national UK government has been run by the Conservatives for the past 11 years, ever since they returned to power in 2010.
Super Tuesday aftershocks
Thursday’s elections, dubbed “Super Thursday,” were for local councils across the UK as well as Welsh and Scottish parliamentary elections, mayoral elections across England, and the by-election in Hartlepool.
They are the first elections that Labour Party has contested under its new leader, Keir Starmer.
He took over last year from Jeremy Corbyn, who in 2019 led Labour to its worst electoral defeat since 1935. Even in that election, however, Hartlepool stayed in Labour hands.
Starmer has admitted he has a mountain to climb to restore Labour to electoral credibility, but the results of the Hartlepool election are devastating nonetheless.
Local council election results, which are still coming in, do not look promising for Labour either.
Corbyn hailed from the more staunchly socialist wing of the party, and Starmer from the more centrist wing.
Left versus center
Following the results, left-wing figures inside Labour were quick to call on Starmer to change course and re-embrace a more stridently socialist platform.
Diane Abbott, a Labour MP and Corbyn ally, tweeted: “Crushing defeat for Labour in Hartlepool. Not possible to blame Jeremy Corbyn for this result. Labour won the seat twice under his leadership. Keir Starmer must think again about his strategy.”
“This result is a disaster,” said a statement by the pro-Corbyn campaign group Momentum. “A transformative socialist message has won in Hartlepool before, and it would have won again.
“Starmer’s strategy of isolating the left and replacing meaningful policy with empty buzzwords has comprehensively failed. If he doesn’t change direction, not only will he be out of a job – but the Labour party may be out of government forever.”
Starmer still has his supporters, however.
MP Wes Streeting tweeted: “Our leadership has changed for the better, but the voters aren’t convinced that Labour has too. This is a huge and urgent task. Keir gets it. So must we.”
Brexit Party factor
Steve Reed, Labour MP and shadow communities secretary, told the BBC: “I congratulate Jill Mortimer on her victory, but it was for me as a Labour party member absolutely shattering to see a Conservative MP elected in a place like Hartlepool after nearly 50 years.
“I think what this shows is that although we have started to change since the cataclysm of the last general election, that change has clearly not gone far enough in order to win back the trust of the voters, and we’ve just seen that in spades in Hartlepool.”
As Labour digests and debates the loss, there is another factor at play to consider.
In 2019, the hard-right Brexit Party came a close third place behind the Conservatives.
The party’s support has collapsed nationally now that Brexit has been implemented, and these votes have gone to the Conservatives – both in Hartlepool and across the country.
Further results from yesterday’s elections will continue to be announced today and over the weekend.