North East Devolution and Levelling Up

All Eyes on Hartlepool

Isn’t the Hartlepool byelection exciting! Boris Johnson visited the town yesterday, following on the heels of Sir Keir Starmer. That the leaders of both main parties should campaign in person is a sure sign that the seat is considered winnable by both. 

Perhaps this seat, which has been held by the Labour Party for decades, is about to become the latest brick to fall out of the ‘red wall’.

In spite of Hartlepool’s long unbroken history as a Labour seat, the more recent record suggests an electorate that has become volatile and susceptible to new parties. 

In nine general and by-elections between 1974 and 2019, Labour’s share of the vote was at its lowest in 2015, the year before the Brexit referendum, when it received 35.6%. That was also a high point for UKIP, when it won 28% and pushed the Conservatives into third place. 

Two years later, with Bexit secured, Labour bounced back to 52.5% and the Tories regained second place with 34.2% while UKIP fell back to a poor third with 11.5%. By 2019 the new Brexit Party had regained most of the ground lost by UKIP in 2017, but still came in third with 25.8%. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party held the seat with a reduced majority of 37.7%, which was its worst performance since 1974 apart from the pre-referendum election of 2015, and Boris Johnson’s Tories held on to second place with 28.9%. 

Splintered

In the meantime, Hartlepool Council has splintered into eight factions. Labour has gone from control of the council with 19 seats out of 33 before the 2017 council elections to just eight now. But the Conservatives have not been big winners at Labour’s expense, having increased their representation from three councillors to still only four. There are now six representatives of the Hartlepool Independent Union, four Independents, four Socialist Labour councillors, two sitting for Putting Seaton First and one representative each of the For Britain Movement and the Veterans’ and People’s Party. Three seats are vacant. 

The Hartlepool electorate may show itself to be equally fragmented at the parliamentary by-election on 6 May. When nominations closed on 8 April there were no fewer than 16 candidates, making the outcome impossible to predict.   

Whatever the result, it will give an indication of whether the wider North East, and perhaps even the wider north of England, is returning to the Labour fold after the turmoil of Brexit. An opinion poll by JL Partners for Channel 4 News suggests that if a general election were held now the Conservatives would hold on to five of the North East region’s ‘red wall’ seats gained in 2019 but lose two. Significantly, the five they would hold are all either in Tees Valley (Stockton South, Redcar and Darlington) or bordering it (Bishop Auckland and Sedgefield) while the two they would lose (North West Durham and Blyth Valley) are more aligned with Labour’s Tyne and Wear metropolitan heartland. 

No improvement

Given current uncertainty over the willingness of the four south of Tyne councils (Gateshead, South Tyneside, Sunderland and Durham) to re-unite with their North of Tyne counterparts (Newcastle, North Tyneside and Northumberland) and do a devolution deal with the government, the not-unrealistic prospect for the region after the next general election in 2024 is for no improvement on the current situation. Conservatives, led by Mayor Ben Houchen, will continue to be the strongest force in Tees Valley and will continue to find favour with a re-elected Tory government while the North East remains under Labour domination at both parliamentary and municipal level but with its economy split along the line of the Tyne, and with little prospect of improvement in its situation until the following general election in 2029. 

Whether either Houchen’s dynamic leadership of Tees Valley (assuming he is re-elected on 6 May) or the stagnation in the northern part of the region will make any difference to economic outcomes remains uncertain, including in the opinion of ‘red wall’ voters. The poll by JL Partners, which was conducted in 45 ‘red wall’ seats in the second half of March, after the Budget which brought rewards such as a freeport and a government economic campus to Tees Valley, found that only 35% of people were confident that levelling up would take place. 

In a country as centralised as the UK, most economic levers are in the hands of Westminster and Whitehall. That does not absolve local politicians of responsibility to do what they can, and for the present that means uniting, showing a common sense of purpose and working with the government and the devolution model now in place. They should start immediately, and voters have an opportunity on 6 May to ensure that only those willing to do so are elected. Theorising about an ideal form of devolution is fine but cannot be allowed to hold the region back until at least 2024 and perhaps 2029.