This will just be the third since 1960, when Harold Macmillan’s incumbent Tory government captured Brighouse and Spenborough from Labour that the party of government has won a by-election from the opposition. The only other occurrences were in 1982 when the Tories took Mitcham and Morden from Labour in the aftermath of the formation of the SDP and Falklands war, and then the Cumbrian seat of Copeland in 2017 which, ironically, led to Theresa May’s own general election gamble backfiring just a matter of weeks later.
Yet, given how by-elections are invariably protest votes, a Labour defeat in Hartlepool in the party’s first electoral test since losing so many of its ‘red wall’ seats in 2019 will leave Sir Keir on the defensive when he has been attacking Boris Johnson over Covid failings, NHS pay, steel jobs and Tory sleaze.
But it could be more profound than this. When social and economic inequality has never been more rife, and when traditional Northern towns were feeling neglected long before the Tories imposed a decade of austerity, why are voters more inclined to support Mr Johnson over the traditional party of the working classes? A year into his leadership, Sir Keir will have to quickly reconcile this conundrum if Labour loses a seat where families appear to have little in common with the Tory elite in London. It can’t just be down to Brexit, or can it?
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