LONDON – Britain's governing Conservative Party made further inroads in the north of England on Friday, winning a special election in the post-industrial town of Hartlepool for a parliamentary seat that the main opposition Labour Party had held since 1974.
Managing to present themselves as the party of change despite having led the U.K. for 11 years, Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Conservatives extended their grip on parts of England that had been Labour strongholds for decades, if not a century. Many of these seats that have flipped from red to blue voted heavily in 2016 for Britain’s departure from the European Union.
“What has happened is that they can see we did get Brexit done," Johnson said during a flying visit to Hartlepool where he posed next to an inflatable blimp of himself. “What people want us to do now is to get on with delivering on everything else. No. 1 is continuing the vaccine rollout, making sure that we go from jab to jab, to jab to jobs, jobs, jobs.”
The Conservatives appeared to be headed for a series of victories a day after millions of voters cast ballots in an array of local and regional elections in England, Scotland and Wales.
The party has also picked up a host of local council seats across England and hopes to prevent the Scottish National Party from winning a majority in the Scottish parliamentary election, which would speed up the prospect of a second independence referendum.
On what was dubbed Super Thursday, around 50 million voters were eligible to take part in scores of elections, some of which had been postponed a year because of the pandemic that has left the U.K. with Europe’s largest coronavirus death toll.
The results of Thursday's election in Hartlepool, one of the poorest towns in England, showed Conservative candidate Jill Mortimer secured nearly 52% of the vote. The Labour candidate, Paul Williams, only received around 29%.
“Labour have taken people in Hartlepool for granted for too long," Mortimer said in her victory speech.
In the 2019 general election, the Conservative Party made big inroads into Labour's “red wall” in northern England on a combination of factors, notably Johnson's insistence that he would deliver Brexit after years of parliamentary haggling. The recent success of Britain's coronavirus vaccine rollout also appears to have given the Conservatives a shot in the arm.
Whatever lay behind the result, the loss of Hartlepool represents a big blow for the Labour Party and its leader, Keir Starmer. He has already faced a backlash from the left wing of Labour in the wake of the Hartlepool result.
Hopes had been high that Starmer would help Labour reconnect with its lost voters in the north of England when he took the helm a little more than a year ago after succeeding the more left-wing Jeremy Corbyn, who led the party in 2019 to its worst election performance since 1935.
Starmer, a former director of public prosecutions, said he took full responsibility for the party's defeat in Hartlepool, adding that he would soon be setting out a strategy of how it can reconnect with its traditional voters. He didn't give further details.
“Very often we've been talking to ourselves instead of the country and we've lost the trust of working people, particularly in places like Hartlepool,” he said. “I intend to do whatever is necessary to fix that.”
Starmer and Labour should have some results to cheer over the coming couple of days, with Sadiq Khan and Andy Burnham expected to win second terms as the mayors of London and Manchester, respectively. The Labour government in Wales is also expected to hold onto power.
The result that could have the biggest implications is the Scotland election as it could fast-track another referendum on its future within the U.K.
On winning her seat in Glasgow, the SNP's leader, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, said early results indicated that her party was on course to win its fourth straight election in Scotland but that the final outcome would not emerge until Saturday evening.
“If indeed that is the outcome of this election, I pledge today to get back to work immediately, to continue to steer the country through the crisis of COVID, to lead this country into recovery from COVID and then when the time is right to offer this country the choice of a better future,” she said.
Scotland has been part of the U.K. since 1707 and the issue of Scottish independence appeared settled when Scottish voters rejected secession by 55%-45% in a 2014 referendum. But the U.K.-wide decision in 2016 to leave the European Union ran against the wishes of most Scots: 62% voted in favor of staying within the bloc, while most voters in England and Wales wanted to leave. That gave the Scottish nationalist cause fresh legs.