Labour will fast-track its candidate for the difficult byelection in Hartlepool to make the choice by Saturday after a ramped-up nominations process that has irritated the party’s left.
Dr Paul Williams, a former MP for neighbouring Stockton-on-Tees who has been working as a frontline Covid doctor, is the favourite for the nomination. Labour sources said he would be a good fit because he would draw attention to the government’s failures during the pandemic as someone who has spent the past year treating patients.
Williams was a supporter of the People’s Vote campaign, which has caused some unease about his selection for a constituency that heavily voted for Brexit in 2016. His tweets backing a second EU referendum have already been collated and shared by local Tory MPs.
Sources on Labour’s left suggested they were blindsided by a fast-tracked process in which nominations closed on Wednesday afternoon, a little more than 24 hours after the resignation of the Labour MP Mike Hill.
Hill resigned amid an independent investigation into sexual harassment claims made against him, which he denies.
Laura Pidcock, a former Labour MP for North West Durham who was a favourite of the left, is understood not to be seeking the nomination, leaving that wing of the party without an obvious candidate to challenge Williams.
Gaya Sriskanthan, the co-chair of the grassroots group Momentum which was formed to support Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, said: “It’s essential that local members in Hartlepool are given a real democratic choice on the candidate that stands for Labour in their community. The extremely short timetable agreed by the party leadership severely compromises that.
“This challenging byelection will require someone who truly understands the challenges faced by the people of Hartlepool, and the need for bold solutions to the many crises our country faces in the aftermath of Covid-19.”
Shortlisting for the seat is expected to take place by Friday, with an online vote by local members by Saturday. The byelection is expected to take place on 6 May, to coincide with the local elections.
A party source defended the short timetable, saying it was essential to have a Labour candidate campaigning against the Tories as soon as possible, rather than spend longer on internal politics.
“This is a very difficult byelection and the worst thing that we could do is spend time on inter-Labour politics while our opponents get out there and set the agenda,” they said.
Hill has been the MP for Hartlepool since the 2017 snap election. He held on to the seat in 2019 but his majority halved – and he was probably saved from the Tories taking it by the Brexit party splitting the vote in an area that voted 69.6% to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum.
Both Labour and Tory sources believe they have a good chance of victory. The Conservatives have steadily increased their vote share since Peter Mandelson stepped down as the town’s MP in 2004.
Tory sources in the town said they hoped to put forward a locally known candidate and one of the names being mentioned is Carl Jackson, a Buckinghamshire councillor who increased the party’s vote share by 13% when he stood in Hartlepool in 2017.
One Tory insider said he would put money on a Conservative victory if it was “a two-horse race” – which probably depends on whether Richard Tice, the former Brexit party leader, decides to contest the seat again having taken 26% of the vote in 2019.
“We’ve got Brexit out the way now so it should be a two-horse race,” the source said. “If I didn’t know better I would say it literally was the perfect time for the Conservatives. The government has just given Hartlepool a freeport. Covid will dominate it but it will be about who will bring us out of it better.”