It is the first big electoral test of Keir Starmer’s leadership, but in the forthcoming Hartlepool byelection Labour will not just be up against the Conservatives – newly emboldened in the north-east after the party’s triumph in 2019 – but also former parliamentary party colleagues.
Thelma Walker, who was elected to represent the Colne Valley in 2017, will be one of three ex-Labour MPs on the ballot and is running as a candidate for the Northern Independence party (NIP).
She will be up against Labour’s candidate, Paul Williams, a GP who previously represented the nearby Stockton South seat, and Hilton Dawson, who is standing for the North East party, and was previously Labour MP for Lancaster and Wyre from 1997-2005.
Standing for the anti-lockdown Reform UK (the rebranded Brexit party) is John Prescott, a business consultant brought up in Stockton-on-Tees. The outfit was founded by Nigel Farage in 2018, who stepped down as its leader last month. The party chair, Richard Tice, stood in Hartlepool in 2019 under the Brexit party banner, seemingly splitting the leave vote in the town, which voted overwhelmingly to quit the EU.
Hoping to win the seat for the Conservatives for the first time in its history is Jill Mortimer, a farmer and a district councillor in North Yorkshire. Boris Johnson joined Mortimer and Ben Houchen, the popular Conservative mayor of Tees Valley, for a visit in Hartlepool on Thursday.
Walker, who still lives in West Yorkshire, says she was attracted to the NIP after discussions with its founder, Philip Proudfoot, about the north-south divide and harnessing the anger of northerners “sick of crumbs from the Westminster table”. Proudfoot, galvanised by Andy Burnham’s furious response to a lack of central government funding when Greater Manchester was placed in a higher tier of coronavirus restrictions last October, set up the NIP and says the party now has more than 1,400 members. He says the core organising group is split between former Labour activists disappointed with the “zero concessions made to democratic socialists” and those who have long championed northern independence.
Modelled as “socialism with a northern accent”, the party will campaign for a referendum on northern independence and a “green industrial rebirth”. Walker, a former headteacher, says the party is anti-racist, and about localism, not nationalism, and hopes that in Hartlepool it can pioneer ideas around community wealth building such as social cooperatives that have been trialled in the Colne valley.
Like Williams, Walker lost her seat in the 2019 election when swathes of former Labour strongholds fell to the Conservatives. A former parliamentary private secretary to John McDonnell, she said her disillusionment with Labour began when it abstained on bills concerning human rights issues, and eventually quit after Jeremy Corbyn was suspended for saying the party’s problem with antisemitism had been overstated.
Some northern Labour figures, such as the Liverpool Riverside MP, Kim Johnson, have dismissed the NIP’s slogan – “It’s about bloody time” – and whippet logo as “patronising in the extreme”. Walker concedes that she thought it was “a bit stereotypical” at first, but says it is northern, self-deprecating humour. “A really refreshing thing about working with this group of people is there is that massive energy and fun,” she says, drawing a contrast between the social-media fuelled, youthful campaign and the “miserable”, “febrile” politics of the last few years of the Brexit votes and the pandemic.
Rob Ford, a professor of political science at the University of Manchester, said that while the NIP may hope to emulate the success of parties such as the SNP, the Scottish party had several decades in the political wilderness before electoral success. “Mobilising voter interest in a new political party, unless there’s some really burning issue on the agenda where you’ve got like a national-level celebrity like Farage in 2019 to make your case is very hard,” he said.
However, given that the Brexit party received 25.8% of the vote in 2019 (compared with 28.9% for the Conservatives and 37.7% for Labour), there may be a large “identity-based anti-incumbent vote” in Hartlepool, which doesn’t divide neatly into traditional left and right categories, Ford added.
Voters in seats such as Hartlepool are often considerably more radically leftwing on economic issues such as nationalisation, he said, although less keen on issues from the “internationalist socially liberal cosmopolitan end of the spectrum”. Hartlepool borough council, for example, has representatives from 10 parties, including four councillors from Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour party.