A union jack hangs limply from Labour’s campaign headquarters in Hartlepool. The flag has flown for six weeks over the former vape shop, next to an outlet called We Sell Owt, in the town where Labour fought its most bruising byelection campaign in decades.
As Hartlepool woke up on Friday as the seat of a Conservative MP for the first time in 57 years, Labour figures pointed to the flag as being emblematic of the deep identity crisis behind the party’s shattering loss.
Labour head office was “obsessed with us getting a flag”, said one organiser, bemoaning what they felt was a lack of substance to justify it. “There was no fleshing out what the flag means, or what policies have changed because we’re now patriotic. It was just: bung a flag up.”
A fortnight before polling day, party activists were told to hand out St George’s flag leaflets urging voters to “display this poster with pride in your window”. Labour, a party searching for direction after 11 years out of power, wrapped itself in the flag to try to win back voters who deserted it over Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn. The plan failed.
Labour’s share of the vote plunged to 29% on Thursday, its lowest in almost 100 years, while the Conservatives won a nearly 7,000-strong majority in a north-east England town they recently thought unwinnable. “It’s seismic,” beamed Mike Young, the Conservative deputy leader of Hartlepool borough council, as the ballots piled up for its candidate on Friday morning.
The story of the Hartlepool byelection is as much about how the Conservatives won it as how Labour lost. The Tory campaign centred on the two Bs – Boris Johnson and Ben Houchen, the mayor of the Tees Valley – as their Hartlepool candidate, the North Yorkshire farmer Jill Mortimer, was kept largely out of the public eye. Even political rivals admit that Houchen, 34, has detoxified the Conservative party with a series of eye-catching regional initiatives including the UK’s biggest freeport, buying back the airport and developing the former SSI steelworks site.
The Tories rained knockout blows on Labour’s candidate, the GP and former MP Paul Williams, for his anti-Brexit views and his role on a clinical commissioning group that backed calls to remove critical care from Hartlepool’s once-cherished hospital. Both issues are key in Hartlepool, and Labour was punished on the doorstep. “Paul is the worst candidate they could’ve found for Hartlepool bar none,” said one senior local Tory. “They picked Teesside’s most ardent remainer in a very Brexity town”.
In Labour’s focus groups, Williams, who lost his seat in neighbouring Stockton South in 2019, was viewed as “too polished”, said one party figure. Mortimer, on the other hand, was described approvingly as “authentic” when a focus group was shown footage of her fumbling a television interview. Similarly, voters who spoke to the Guardian often described the Eton-educated prime minister as more down to earth than Keir Starmer, the son of a nurse and a toolmaker.
Labour insiders sensed a “misplaced confidence” in Starmer’s approach to the byelection. Williams was appointed by the national executive committee without contest and the byelection date was set for the same day as the mayoral and council elections, arguably making Labour’s task more difficult against the popularity of Houchen. The date “never crossed their minds - they thought they were gonna win”, said one activist of Starmer’s team.
The selection of Jim McMahon, the shadow transport secretary, to run the byelection campaign also raised eyebrows. One of his ideas, he told a parliamentary Labour party meeting, was to urge Hartlepudlians to forego their usual summer holidays and stay in Hartlepool instead. “Toes were curling. The WhatsApp group just lit up with people saying: ‘What the hell is going on?’” Another “crackpot idea” was having Williams hand out heart-shaped stickers encouraging people to support local businesses. “It’s parish council stuff, not a parliamentary byelection,” said one Labour fixer.
The St George’s leaflets were also Labour HQ’s idea. Speaking to the Guardian shortly after conceding defeat live on Sky News at 3am on Friday, McMahon defended Labour’s campaign and said he found it “staggering that there’s anyone in politics who believes you can aspire to be the government of a country when you’re not proud to fly its flag”. He said recovering from Labour’s “devastating” 2019 campaign was a long-term project and that the party was “doing the right thing in the right way at the right time”.
The byelection defeat, while dramatic, is a delayed aftershock from Johnson’s 2019 landslide, which was built on winning former Labour strongholds across England. Hartlepool would have fallen to the Tories two years ago, like six of its neighbouring constituencies, had the Brexit party not split the anti-Labour vote. This time it was a two-horse race and, in a town that voted 70% to leave the EU, the Conservatives hoovered up the more than 10,000 votes left behind by Nigel Farage’s now-rebranded Reform UK.
The political tremors that unseated Labour in Hartlepool took hold at least 20 years ago, although they have gone almost unnoticed as Brexit dominates the narrative. In nine mayoral elections in the Tees Valley region since 2002, Labour has won only one; independent candidates – including the Hartlepool football mascot, H’Angus the Monkey – have won seven. These were the early signs of a hankering for change in a region where political allegiances were entwined with heavy industries that have long disappeared.
Another generational shift is harming Labour: these areas are growing older, fast. The number of 16- to 24-year-olds in Hartlepool dropped by 25% between 1981 and 2011 as young people left to find work in the cities, while the number of retirees jumped by 27%. A housebuilding boom has formed a new demographic of young, comfortably off, car-owning white-collar workers who own their own new-builds and, by and large, are more likely to vote Conservative.
These smart new estates are a far cry from Hartlepool’s more deprived areas, which include some of the poorest in the country. One shadow minister was shocked when he knocked on doors during the byelection: “It was quite depressing going around because you could tell it hadn’t been looked after. It felt like the people whose doors we were knocking had just been forgotten about for 20 to 30 years and understandably were not well disposed to the Labour party because of that.”
He feared Starmer’s team had not yet fully realised the challenge ahead if they were to reconnect with lost voters. “It’s going to be a long job ahead of us. It’s all right us turning up for a byelection for six weeks but you need six months, six years of that intensity to prove to people you can make a difference.”