Today’s big question

Can Labour hang on to Hartlepool in by-election battle?

Tories ‘gagging for a fight’ following resignation of northern constituency’s scandal-hit Labour MP

The stakes were already high for Keir Starmer in May’s local elections, but now the resignation of Hartlepool’s Labour MP has pushed them higher still.

Mike Hill, who has represented the northern seat since 2017, announced yesterday that he was stepping down with immediate effect, ahead of a tribunal into allegations against him of sexual harassment - claims that he denies. 

His resignation piles pressure on Labour as the party prepares for what Politico London Playbook’s Alex Wickham describes as “one of the most interesting by-elections in years” - one that will challenge “the received Westminster wisdom on various narratives from Brexit and the blue wall”.

Labour is reportedly pushing for the Hartlepool vote to take place on 6 May, the same day as the other local elections, in a move that makes it “double or quits” for Starmer, Wickham writes.

Hill leaves behind a relatively thin majority of 3,595, setting the scene for a polls battle that will test Starmer’s strategy for rebuilding Labour’s heartlands, while measuring whether the Tories are still popular among the northern voters who turned blue in 2019.

If the Hartlepool by-election “were held tomorrow”, Labour would almost certainly hold on to the seat, says the New Statesman’s political editor Stephen Bush.

But “the election is not being held tomorrow, and what we don’t know is whether the increase in the government’s fortunes has yet reached its peak”, he continues. That said, “you’d expect a Labour hold” as opposed to “a Conservative triumph” in a seat that has never voted Tory.

HuffPost executive editor Paul Waugh is more confident that Starmer’s party will prevail, arguing that “with the right candidate, Labour should be increasing its majority in Hartlepool, not hanging on for dear life”.

However, a Labour insider told Waugh that “if you could pick one seat we didn’t want a by-election in, it is Hartlepool”, adding: “It’s a nightmare.”

The Brexit Party’s Richard Tice got 10,603 votes in Hartlepool in the 2019 election, suggesting that should the newly-rebranded Reform Party stand a candidate, both Labour and the Tories could lose valuable support. And as the New Statesman’s Bush notes, “independent candidates have a long history of success in local elections”. 

The loyalties of Hartlepool voters have proved particularly hard to predict. In 2002, the constituency famously elected a candidate running under the guise of H’Angus the Monkey, the town’s football club’s mascot, who was then re-elected in 2005 and 2009.

As voters nationwide gear up to head to the polls once again in May, a northern Conservative MP told Politico’s Playbook that the Hartlepool seat is very much “in play”. The Tories are “gagging for a fight” and will “campaign very hard” with “high profile” from senior party figures, the unnamed MP added.

Labour are also certain to come out swinging though. “If Labour smashed the council elections and saw off the challenge in Hartlepool then pressure on Starmer’s leadership would ease,” writes Playbook’s Wickham.

“But if either goes wrong for the opposition then that scrutiny will increase tenfold.”

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