Labour Says 2019 Voter Anger Has “Dissipated” In Hartlepool And Insist They Are “Back In The Game”
Labour figures have admitted the battle to keep Hartlepool red in Thursday’s by-election is on a knife edge as a damming poll shows the Conservatives way out in front.
A survey by Survation, conducted for ITV’s Good Morning Britain, found that the Conservatives are on track for a record win in the traditionally Labour seat, with just 33% of respondents in Hartlepool saying they would be voting for Labour’s Paul Williams, compared to 50% for the Tory’s Jill Mortimer.
But despite the gloomy projection, Shadow cabinet minister Rachel Reeves, who has been out knocking on doors in the northeast town over the last two days, insisted the seat was still theirs to play for.
“I think the anger that voters felt towards Labour in 2019 has definitely dissipated,” Reeves told PoliticsHome during a visit to a local chemicals business on Tuesday.
On the doorstep she has found that “people want to hear from us”, but admitted Labour still has a long way to go to overcome 2019’s catastrophic General Election defeat.
“I feel like we're back in the game again but it's a tanker we've got to turn around,” she continued.
“I honestly don't think that it was ever realistic to turn things around in the space of a year, but we are beginning to do that and certainly in Hartlepool things are very much still up for grabs.”
Reeves believed the Labour party was more embedded in Hartlepool than the Conservatives, with a greater history in the area and better local knowledge, and hoped that would translate into votes.
“The Conservatives tend to approach things as an air war and Labour have got a ground operation going on,” she said.
But she worried that 10,000 votes that went to the now-defunct Brexit party in 2019 in the heavily Leave-leaning area could create a tough problem for Williams, who campaigned to remain in the EU in 2016, to win.
“Now that the Brexit Party has gone away the question is what happens to those 10k voters and that's the big unknown in this election," Reeves added.
This morning Labour activists were growing increasingly worried about the Conservatives’ dramatic polling lead, which many believed was bolstered by the popularity of Tory Mayor of Tees Valley Ben Houchen, who is also out campaigning to retain his seat.
One Labour MP campaigning in Hartlepool in the last few days said the race was now too close to call.
“It feels much closer than the polls suggest,” they said. “This town has had eleven years of Tory cuts to local NHS services, the police and schools and Dr Paul Williams has good name recognition. But it’s too close to call.”
One Labour insider spoke of having faced a tough race in the region from the outset.
"The seat was nearly lost to the Lib Dems in 2004 and Ukip in 2015. Loads of those votes split to the Brexit Party which no longer exists,” they explained.
"I think many voters are taking a wait and see approach and it's true the vaccine rollout has given the government a boost.
“This week is massive for us in terms of fighting for every vote, which is exactly what we're going to do."
Labour leader Keir Starmer sounded a similarly cautious note on Tuesday morning.
“I said on the day that I was elected that that was a mountain to climb,” Starmer told the BBC’s Today Programme. “It is, we're climbing it, and I've got a burning desire to build a better future for our country. Thursday is a first step towards that better future.”
But despite a poll lead, the Conservatives also appeared to be managing expectations, with Boris Johnson telling Tory activists on Monday that it would be "a quite extraordinary thing" to win Hartlepool on Thursday.
One Tory MP described the poll as promising. “We just have to keep earning those votes – everything Boris has said about it being a big ask is true, and Hartlepool has a funny voting history down the years,” they said.
“But we have a great record to talk about on both Brexit and local regeneration under Ben [Houchen], and hopefully the trends of 2019 will continue."