There is no doubt that the Hartlepool by-election has the potential to be something out of the ordinary. It was, after all, the town that elected the man who was Hartlepool United’s football team mascot as its mayor not just once but three times.
More recently, at the General Election in 2019, the Brexit Party turned in a very credible result by getting over a quarter of the vote.
With this in my mind, predicting the result of a by-election in a town which has a electoral history of cocking a snook at the established parties and one where, whatever happens, the result will not change the Government, would be quite absurd at this stage.
So this by-election has the potential to provide a shock.
In the past (even in Hartlepool itself) the Liberal Democrats have pulled off some spectacular increases in vote share in by-elections as its party activists and limited resources could be concentrated in a single seat. This is unlikely to happen this time around given where British politics is at the moment.
So perhaps the stage is set for another insurgent party to step up. One that might seize the imagination of voters in Hartlepool is the newly formed Northern Independence Party.
The selection of former Colne Valley MP Thelma Walker, as its candidate, shows exactly how the party positions itself: unambiguously socialist and to the left of the Labour Party.
Whether there is an appetite for this political positioning remains to be seen but another policy of what the party is about might have greater resonance and that is highlighting the North-South divide.
This is an issue we are all familiar with in Yorkshire and how this divide is healed is something we all grapple with. The party’s solution is one that is quite distinctive – independence for the North of England.
That the Northern Independence Party recognises the increasing sense of frustration – even betrayal – in the North as investment promises are not kept should be of no surprise.
Such anger has been the currency of politics in the North for some time and is shared across party lines as the Government’s so-called ‘levelling up’ agenda is viewed with growing scepticism.
The Yorkshire Post itself reported the summary of respected Lord Kerslake, a former Head of the Civil Service, back in October who said somewhat damningly: “The levelling up agenda does not seem to have the leadership, pace and momentum that it’s going to need.”
This has been a sentiment echoed by many over the past months. Even backbench Tories from the North were concerned enough to form their own pressure group within Parliament urging the Prime Minister for greater investment to help overcome the North-South divide.
This criticism has had little impact. Whilst a few crumbs were dropped from the table in Rishi Sunak’s Budget, there is concern about the scaling back of investment proposals such as rail projects that leaders across the North have been pressing for.
If national government is unwilling, or unable, to set out a clear well funded plan for its levelling up agenda (even more important in the fightback against the impact of Covid-19 in the North) then others are at hand to pick up the mantle and press the case. This could start in Hartlepool in May.
Despite a noisy social media presence, the chances of the Northern Independence Party winning the Hartlepool by-election would appear slim.
However if, as a consequence of putting up a candidate in this northern seat and campaigning hard on the issue, a serious discussion takes place about the North-South divide and the levelling-up agenda and how best to deal with it, then it will have delivered a very significant step change to the debate.
This can only be good for democracy as it will challenge the two main parties to present suitable plans that allow Yorkshire and the rest of the North to take control of its own destiny and unleash its potential.
Stewart Arnold is a former Chair of the Campaign for Yorkshire.
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