Elections 2021: Hartlepool, a cracked ‘Red Wall’, and Tory rule

After a long election drought, “Super Thursday” saw around 5,000 seats up for grabs. Now the dust has settled, and the results are in, what trends are emerging in British politics?

Hartlepool by-election

The main event of Thursday night took place on the North East coast, seeing Labour attempting to defend the seat held by them since 1974. The Conservatives easily won, receiving over 50% of the vote and placing another crack in the “Red Wall”, a group of northerly seats that were formerly safe Labour heartlands. The result was the biggest swing towards an incumbent governing party in a by-election since 1945.

Labour’s troubles in the North amongst their core vote continued as sole control of Durham County Council was taken away from the party for the first time since 1919. Similarly, Nottingham, Bristol, and Sheffield each saw gains for Conservatives, Greens, and Liberal Democrats respectively. Excluding Wales’ Senedd elections, in which First Minister Mark Drakeford was credited for Labour holding its ground, losses came just about everywhere. In total, 326 seats and eight councils fell out of Labour control.

Starmer in the hot seat

Already confronting a tough battle to maintain control of the fractured party, Sir Keir Starmer is facing new questions about the success of his opposition during the pandemic and whether he has a vision to win in working-class areas. He said to reporters: “To be clear, I take responsibility. Nobody else. I lead the Labour Party and it is entirely on me.” However, this has failed to hold off criticism of his leadership.

His most vociferous critics have come from the left of his party, including former Shadow Cabinet members John McDonnell and Diane Abbott. The decision to demote Deputy Leader Angela Rayner, one of the few prominent Northern figures in the leadership, from her campaign coordinator role was met by opposition from all sides. Starmer will now have to prove that he is the right person to lead Labour into the next General Election.

Keir Starmer faces an uphill battle to keep control of the Labour Party/Wikimedia Commons

Conservatives gain nationally

The Conservatives undeniably won the night, picking up 235 council seats and 12 councils, including Cornwall. The party held its traditional heartland areas and continued to breach the Labour “Red Wall”. This suggests that the 2019 general election result wasn’t fuelled by a one-off tactical vote for Brexit but that Boris Johnson’s Conservatives have broader support than was theorised. The Prime Minister said: “I think what this election shows is that people want a party and a government that is focused on them, focused on delivering change”. The change he promised was laid out in the Queen’s Speech this week—“levelling up”, housebuilding, social care, and ID cards to vote in elections were amongst the agenda.

Local election results can be analysed in hundreds of different ways, but simply: Boris Johnson won again.  

Liberal Democrats and Greens perform well

While Conservatives were the main recipients of seats lost by Labour, both the Greens and Lib Dems saw positive results nationally. Fielding more candidates than ever before, the Green Party won an additional 88 seats and saw a triumphant rise on Bristol City Council to become the joint largest party and gained its highest ever vote share in Wales. Speaking in Bristol, co-leader Jonathan Bartley said: “We’ve already put years of work into this area, I think people are now responding to it – it feels like we’ve reached a tipping point.” He also stated the party’s intention to target Bristol West to win a second seat in Parliament.

Green Party Co-Leaders Jonathan Bartley and Sian Berry/Wikimedia Commons

The seven seats gained nationally by the Liberal Democrats might seem meager in comparison, but in context this result was an impressive victory by a party that has recently struggled at the Westminster level. Since the 2015 general election, Liberal Democrats have cumulatively added over 800 seats due to strong performances in the last three local election cycles—the current number of seats held is now comparable to pre-coalition levels. With a dominant Conservative Party and growing Green presence, the party can feel confident as the swell of support gained due to Brexit seems to have remained. While suffering some losses in Scotland and Wales, the party performed well in London and the South East, particularly on Hearts County Council and St Albans City Council where sole control flipped to the Lib Dems. Leader Ed Davey stated: “There’s a blue wall in the Conservative heartlands, and the Liberal Democrats are chipping away at that and I want those to be our new heartlands.”

What comes next?

Two key by-elections are scheduled for the coming months. The election of Tracy Brabin as Mayor of West Yorkshire will force her to resign the Batley and Spen parliamentary seat she currently holds. Buried deep in the “Red Wall”, this seat looks poised to flip to the Conservatives and will compound Starmer’s woes further. On the other hand, the Conservatives are facing an outside shot of losing Chesham and Amersham following the death of Dame Cheryl Gillan MP. While Gillan won over 50% of the vote in 2019, the Liberal Democrats made substantial gains in this Remain voting area and look poised for a hard fight TO win the seat. This contest will take place on 17 June.

Could this be the first challenge to Boris Johnson’s post-Brexit feasibility in Remain voting areas? While his “Get Brexit Done” slogan played well in northerly Leave voting areas, the extent to which the Conservatives can continue to be dominant in Outer London and the South East could be put to the test.  

Keir Starmer has already begun to reshuffle his Shadow Cabinet, demoting Anneliese Dobbs from shadow chancellor and promoting Rachel Reeves. The direction of his leadership will hinge on the next few months. Can he unite the party behind his agenda, or will he have a “Clause IV moment” where he can assert a new post-Corbyn agenda to put to the voters? Starmer has learnt that the lost Labour vote will be harder to win back than initially thought.