This article first appeared at betting.betfair on 17th March 2021
The 20 months since the last by-election for Westminster feels like a very long time. It coincided with Boris Johnson taking over as Tory leader, which makes the recently announced Hartlepool By-Election the first electoral test of this majority Tory government. It will coincide with the plethora of local elections across the nations and regions on May 6th.
A by-election to define England’s political divide?
Such moments are an essential part of what makes British politics interesting in between general elections. The clash with London and Scotland results may defuse any narrative that emerges from Hartlepool but the significance of this contest is obvious. Arguably as significant as any in the last 30 years.
This is one of the so-called ‘Red Wall‘ seats that Labour held amid their 2019 disaster, and therefore more indicative of the national picture than London or Scotland. Defeat would be catastrophic for Keir Starmer and doubtless fuel speculation about a leadership challenge.
At this early stage, Betfair traders rate it a roughly even contest with the Conservatives trading at [1.9] compared to [2.1] for Labour. That, I suspect, reflects a high level of uncertainty rather than an expectation that it will be that close. Fifty days out, there are numerous known unknowns.
First it is risky to read too much into current nationwide polls. The Tories have definitely received a bounce since the vaccine rollout but will that persist in May, amid a nationwide election campaign? By then, their lead may well have returned by to pre-vaccine levels – a 3-5% lead, considerably down on the general election. Notably, Labour polling had been improving more in Red Wall seats since the election.
Pro-Brexit third parties thrived here
Nor is this constituency indicative of wider norms. All recent elections have been live betting heats and far from predictable, with strong third party challenges. Before analysing the current race, it is worth looking back.
Hartlepool was on the radar as a potential Tory gain in the last two elections. A very pro-Brexit seat, assumed to be turning Right. UKIP earned 28% in 2015 while Labour’s winning share was a paltry 36%. If the Con/UKIP vote were to unite around a preferred candidate, Labour would be toast.
Similar narrative in 2017 blew up
Or so the narrative went. As it turned out, Mike Hill won a landslide with 53% of the vote. Brexit hadn’t damaged Labour yet, as Corbyn managed to straddle an unsustainable position on the fence between respecting the referendum and a fervently pro-European party.
By 2019 that had unravelled and, while Hill won, his share fell to a very beatable 38%. Brexit Party chair Richard Tice came third with 26%, thus splitting the Brexiter vote. What isn’t clear is whether Tice’s presence damaged Labour or the Tories.