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 its creation in 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 the country that had been Labour strongholds for decades, if not a century, and which voted heavily for Britain’s departure from the European Union in 2016.
“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. Number one 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 already picked up a host of local council seats in towns across England in addition to the victory in Hartlepool.
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.
Hopes were 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.
Steve Reed, Labour's communities spokesman, said it was “absolutely shattering" to see a Conservative candidate win in a place like Hartlepool.
Though Starmer has already faced a backlash from the left wing of Labour in the wake of the Hartlepool result, the party 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 U.K-wide implications is the Scotland election, where the governing Scottish National Party is looking for a renewed mandate that could speed up the prospect of a second independence referendum.
The SNP's leader, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, says she’s is looking to push for another referendum if her party wins a majority in the parliament in Edinburgh, but only after the pandemic has been dealt with and the economic recovery from it is on track.
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.
The first results from Scotland show that the SNP is on course to come first in the election, but it remains unclear whether it will win a majority. Further results are expected later Friday but many may not come until the weekend.