By-elections Part 2: Confirming what we think we know: Hartlepool – 6th May, Conservative gain, share of the vote: 51.9%

In the UK governments typically lose by-elections, or at best they hold on to the seat. It is exceptional for a government to actually gain a seat. In 1982, the then Conservative government gained Mitcham and Morden as the Falklands War[1]reached its climax[2]. Since then, Hartlepool is only the second time a government has gained a seat. Moreover, the Conservatives gained the seat with a 23% increase in their share of the vote. So, what happened? 

One of the reasons the Conservative vote surged in Hartlepool would seem to be the collapse of the UKIP/UKIP successor party[3]vote. Voting UKIP has been likened to a “gateway drug”[4]into voting Conservative; Hartlepool perhaps supports this thesis. Voters who may once have voted Labour have not returned to Labour now that Brexit has been achieved. So, fifteen months after Brexit Hartlepool suggests that the collapse of Labour’s ‘Red Wall’ in 2019 was not a one-off response to a fear that Labour and the Liberal Democrats were about to disregard the 2016 referendum result. Rather, the Hartlepool result confirms that the 2019 general election was indeed a seismic shift in political allegiances from Labour to the Conservatives.

The collapse of Labour in many of its heartlands has been shocking; on December 13th 2019 I was staring at the television speechless as even Sedgefield, Tony Blair’s[5]constituency fell to the Conservatives. However, for a political historian it shouldn’t have been surprising. The British Conservative party has repeatedly shown an ability to reimagine and reshape itself so as to reach out to disillusioned Liberal and Labour voters. 

This malleability goes back to at least the late Victorian period when the Party successfully navigated the extension of the male voting franchise. Party figures such as Disraeli, Randolph Churchill, and Lord Salisbury, developed a new Conservative identity built around patriotism and what the social historian Eric Midwinter calls “Beer and Bonhomie”[6]. Thus, despite the early Liberal dominance at the start of the 20thcentury, Salisbury et al. arguably laid the foundations for Conservative electoral success in the 20thcentury.

This combination of Patriotism + ‘Beer and Bonhomie’ in many ways seems to foreshadow the pre-pandemic Conservatism of the Johnson government. Hartlepool suggests this brand of Conservatism still had momentum in former Red Wall seats as the vaccine roll out surged in Spring 2021. Whether this form of Conservatism will survive in post-pandemic Britain may well be the question that decides the next general election.

Tomorrow part 3 the ‘forgotten by-election’: Airdrie and Shotts: an SNP win but not an SNP triumph…

[1]In April 1982 Argentina sought to assert its claim of sovereignty over the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic (referred to as Las Malvinas in Argentina) when it invaded the islands and secured control. There then followed a brief, but intense naval, air, and land war as the UK recaptured the Islands.

[2]The Mitcham and Morden By-election took place just fourteen days before the Argentine surrender on June 14th1982.

[3]UKIP = the United Kingdom Independence Party had as its main objective Britain’s exit from the EU. After achieving its goal in the 2016 referendum, the party struggled to maintain its internal coherence and focus with its former leader Nigel Farage setting up a rival Brexit – now the Reform UK party.

[4]The origins of this aphorism are unclear, but an internet search shows the Spectator journalist James Forsyth using it as early as 2013:

[5]Labour Prime Minster 1997 – 2007, the last Labour PM to win a general election in 2005

[6]p. 108 Midwinter E, Salisbury (2006) Haus Publishing Ltd. Midwinter’s concise and punchy biography of Lord Salisbury, is an excellent introduction not just to Salisbury, but also to late Victorian Conservatism, and late Victorian politics and society