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Boris Johnson is plotting a Tory by-election raid as the UK braces for 'Super Thursday'

Voters will have their say on councils, mayors and regional parliaments across the UK.

Johnson campaigns in Hartlepool.
Johnson campaigns in Hartlepool.
Image: PA Images

THE ENGLISH PORT town of Hartlepool may not be somewhere you’ve thought much about before, but expect to hear a lot about as part of today’s ‘Super Thursday’ in the UK. 

The by-election for the north-eastern House of Commons seat is part of a bumper slate of elections taking place in various parts of the UK today.

With some elections delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, voters will today have their say on the make-up of English councils as well both the Scottish and Welsh parliaments.

There is no voting taking place in Northern Ireland. 

The votes elsewhere will dictate who holds power in city halls with a number of areas choosing regional mayors. London’s mayoral election is among the most high-profile, with Labour’s Sadiq Khan looking certain to be re-elected for a second-term. 

But while Labour’s prospects in the capital look good, the by-election in Hartlepool is being held up as a barometer of Keir Starmer’s leadership and a snapshot of the wider electoral map.

The reason for this is the fallout from the crushing electoral defeat for Starmer’s predecessor Jeremy Corbyn in December 2019 and the prospects for Labour to rebuild from that. 

Eighteen months ago, before Covid-19 and even before Brexit was a reality, Boris Johnson led his Conservative party to a massive majority that was built on winning previously impenetrable Labour-held seats. 

Many of these seats were in Labour’s industrial heartlands and were referred to by political pundits as its ‘Red Wall’.  

Johnson’s unambiguous ‘Get Brexit Done’ messaging won voters in these areas, many of which had themselves voted to Leave the EU three years previously. 

In total, 45 seats switched from Labour to the Conservatives in northern England and the midlands in that election. 

Hartlepool was almost one of them but it stayed in Labour’s hands by just 3,595 votes. Back in 1997, Peter Mandelson had carried the constituency by over 17,000 voters. 

The party may even have lost Hartlepool last time out were it not for Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, which hoovered up a quarter of the votes that may otherwise have helped the Tories. 

Now though, with Farage out of the picture, it appears Johnson may have another blue seat in the Tory column.

The by-election has been caused by the resignation of Labour incumbent Mike Hill, who departed amid sexual harassment allegations he denies.  

PastedImage-240 Source: PA Graphics

Ahead of today’s vote, the Survation poll for ITV’s Good Morning Britain put the Conservatives on 50% in Hartlepool – 17 points ahead of Labour in the seat it has held since it was created in 1974.

There was further grim reading for Labour in The Guardian, which reported that internal polling suggested only 40% of the party’s previous supporters in the town had pledged to vote for its candidate.

This canvassing matches similar polling from recent months suggesting the Conservatives have managed to consolidate support in some Red Wall areas despite a boost for Starmer in the early part of the pandemic. 

Channel 4 News recently reported that the Tories have a four-point lead across the Red Wall constituencies, having trailed Labour by six points in November 2020.  

The switch has been put down to a so-called ‘vaccine bounce’ benefitting Johnson’s party, but also the belief that his opposition has failed to imprint a lasting image of what Starmer’s party stands for. 

When voters were asked to say why they were not voting Labour, the main reason given the pollsters was: “It is unclear what Keir Starmer stands for.”

“Keir Starmer, he started off good but he sort of fizzled out, in my eyes,” one worker told Channel 4.

Source: Channel 4 News/YouTube

Labour’s candidate in today’s by-election is Dr Paul Williams, a former MP who himself was a victim of the Tory 2019 surge, losing a seat in the nearby Stockton South.

Labour’s choice of Williams as a candidate was perhaps somewhat of a risk given his recent electoral defeat. He had also been an advocate for a second Brexit referendum and is now running in Hartlepool, which voted by nearly 70% for Brexit.

Labour has said the married father-of-two has been “working on the front line during the ongoing pandemic”, seeing coronavirus patients at Hartlepool’s One Life Centres and working in the Urgent Care Centre at Hartlepool hospital.

The Conservative candidate is farmer and councillor Jill Mortimer, who has repeatedly referenced Labour’s dominance in the constituency as part of her pitch, saying the area has been “taken for granted” by Starmer’s party. 

regional-mayoral-elections Starmer during a visit to Birmingham yesterday. Source: PA Images

Starmer has been attempting to counter these attacks and has visited Hartlepool three times during the campaign, despite the votes happening elsewhere too. 

His message has been about “rebuilding trust” with voters but he has also sought to dampen expectations should the polls prove correct and the vote not go his way.

“We lost very badly in December 2019, and my job is to rebuild trust, and confidence and reconnection with the Labour Party and that’s what I’m doing,” Starmer told reporters this week.

That will take time, of course it will take time.

Johnson for his part has also been attempting to play down his party’s chances in Hartlepool, despite the positive-looking poll numbers. 

Campaigning yesterday, the UK Prime Minister told reporters it would be a “very tough fight” in a seat that “hasn’t been a Conservative since its inception – 46 years ago, or whatever it was”.

What else to look out for on ‘Super Thursday’?

scottish-parliamentary-elections-2021 First Minister of Scotland and leader of the SNP Nicola Sturgeon. Source: PA Images

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Scotland

Voters in Scotland will elect 129 MSPs in a crucial contest which will give an indication of the level of support for the SNP’s push for a fresh vote on independence.

People will cast two ballots under the additional member system – a form of proportional representation – electing both constituency and regional MSPs.

Votes for the individual candidates in the 73 constituencies are counted first.

The 56 regional MSPs – split across eight regions – are elected using a formula aimed at ensuring that the number of seats a party gets in total across a region is about the same as the percentage of votes it receives.

Wales

Labour has run Wales since the devolved parliament was instituted in 1999 and the party’s First Minister Mark Drakeford hopes to maintain the party’s grip on the Senedd.

The additional member system is used to elect 40 local and 20 regional members.

London and other mayoral races

In London, Labour’s Khan is looking safe to retain City Hall.

London voters choose the mayor using the supplementary vote system, picking a first and a second preference for the job.

If a candidate receives more than half of all the first choice votes they are elected. If this does not happen, the two candidates with the most first choice votes go through to another round, with second preferences from the eliminated candidates taken into account.

Khan is currently polling at about 60% so likely will not need a second round to be elected. 

There are several other regional mayoral elections taking place, with high-profile names seeking re-election including Labour’s Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester and Tory Andy Street in the West Midlands.

Local elections

There are also 21 county councils holding elections, along with 28 unitary authorities, 59 district councils and 35 of the 36 metropolitan boroughs (the one exception is Birmingham, where elections will take place in 2022). All use the first-past-the-post system.

- With reporting by Press Association

About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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