The Prime Minister and the Party: what can we expect from today’s PMQs?

The Prime Minister’s appearance in the chamber of the House of Commons at lunchtime today is one of the most eagerly anticipated parliamentary events of his turbulent premiership. The Prime Minister and presumably many others on the government benches hoped the story of the Downing Street party last December would quickly disappear but that has certainly not been the case. The fact that no government ministers were available to appear on any of the national news programmes this morning has only heightened the anticipation and thrown the spotlight firmly on the Prime Minister.

What then can we expect from today’s PMQs and what should we be looking for?

Will Conservative MPs turn up? One quick indication about the level of support for the Prime Minister will be whether his own MPs turn up in large numbers to lend support. The Prime Minister performs better with a friendly and rowdy audience at his back but it is clear that many Conservative MPs are not happy with his handling of recent events. At recent PMQs Conservative MPs have voted with their feet by not turning up for PMQs, leaving large gaps on the government benches behind the Prime Minister. It will be interesting to see whether the Ministerial no-shows on the media this morning is reflected in the chamber today.

Will the Prime Minister make an announcement ahead of PMQs? One possible scenario is that the Prime Minister will seek to steal the Leader of the Opposition’s thunder by making an announcement about the Downing Street party in advance of today’s PMQs. He could come clean, admit that there was some form of gathering (the use of the word party is unlikely), that no rules were broken but concede that it shouldn’t have happened. The Prime Minister seems pathologically incapable of apologising so that seems unlikely but several individuals within Downing Street may be asked to resign. Alternately he could announce some form of investigation, perhaps by the Cabinet Secretary, to settle the matter, enabling him to bat away questions in the chamber on the grounds that he will await the results of the investigation before commenting further. None of these approaches, aside perhaps from a fulsome apology, are likely to mean that the Prime Minister won’t be challenged on this issue today, but they may make it easier for him to evade more questions and perhaps make it more difficult for the Leader of the Opposition to criticise the PM. If the announcement is made only shortly before PMQs, Keir Starmer’s job will be even more difficult.

Will the Prime Minister avoid the party question and stick to the line that no rules were broken? The Prime Minister has a habit of pursuing an argument long after his position has become untenable and even the most ardent of supporters have melted away. There is a good chance that he will do the same today by avoiding the question of whether there actually was a party and sticking to the line that at no point were rules broken. Many, particularly on the government benches, have grown tired of this response and just want the Prime Minister to offer a direct response to the question of whether there was a party at Downing Street on the 18th December last year. The Prime Minister may feel that he is able to do a better job of defending this line than those ministers rolled out across the TV networks over the last week but that would be a bold assumption. Moreover, the muddled performance of ministers over the last week coupled with their absence from the networks this morning, has made this position even more untenable.

Will the Prime Minster provide a direct answer to the party question? The tortuous explanation offered by ministers over the last week is a result of the Prime Minister’s decision at a previous PMQs not to answer the direct question of whether a party took place at Downing Street last December. He will almost certainly be asked the question directly again today. Many on the PM’s own benches would desperately like him to answer the question one way or another. The problem for the Prime Minister is that if he admits there was a party, or some form of gathering, it is very difficult for him to claim that Covid rules were not broken. If he chooses to directly answer the question by saying that there wasn’t a party, something which he hasn’t yet done, if further evidence emerges that there was in fact a party he runs the risk of misleading parliament, something which many including on his own backbenches believe would be a resignation issue.

Will the Prime Minister try to get off on a technicality? What perhaps seems more likely is that overnight the Prime Minster will have devised some other argument which allows him admit that something happened which shouldn’t have happened (without using the word party) but that Covid rules were not broken. Ironically the Prime Minister often criticises the Leader of the Opposition for his lawyerly approach at PMQs, but in reality it is the Prime Minister who often relies upon some carefully worded technicality to get him out of trouble. This may work in the short term, but it is unlikely to convince many. The Prime Minister is also a terrible poker player and tends to grin when delivering what he seems to assume are terribly clever but barely tenable responses.

How will the Leader of the Opposition perform? Although this will undoubtedly be a difficult session for the Prime Minister it also presents a significant challenge for the Leader of the Opposition. Today’s PMQs represents an open goal for the Leader of the Opposition but open goals can be notoriously difficult to score. In their book on PMQs,  Punch and Judy Politics, Ayesha Hazarika and Tom Hamilton argue that an open goal is the worst thing the Leader of the Opposition can face at PMQs, and that high profile sessions like today’s often fizzle out. There are a number of problems facing Keir Starmer today, aside from the possibility that the PM may pre-empt his questions by making an announcement in advance of PMQs, the Prime Minister also knows that he is going to be asked about the Downing Street party so will be well prepared. There is also a question about what the opposition want. Simply asking the Prime Minister to apologise seems quite limited in the circumstances, but at the same time demanding his resignation seems over the top, although the SNP leader Ian Blackford, almost certainly will. The best that the Leader of the Opposition can hope for is that the Prime Minister, like a succession of other ministers this week, will tie himself in circumlocutory knots and he can sit back and watch.

Will the Prime Minister resign? The simple answer is no. While there are many who think he should, we are a long way from that. This is part of a much longer process. Conservative polling, which has recently taken a hit following allegations of sleaze relating to the Owen Paterson resignation, is likely to be further damaged, and if the Prime Minister performs badly the real danger is on the benches behind and indeed alongside him.

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The first rule of politics, learn how to count. What is a House of Commons majority?

US President, Lyndon B. Johnson famously said the first rule of politics was to learn how to count. Politics is not all about voting, but in democracies it is the way in which governments attain power, and once they get it the means by which they drive through their legislative agenda. An ambitious programme for government is worth little if one doesn’t have the numbers to get elected and once elected to turn that programme into law.

In majoritarian systems like the UK, governments hope to do this by winning a majority of seats in Parliament, but what constitutes a parliamentary majority is not always clear and may change over time. Indeed, a government’s majority may be different with each votes that passes.

What is a majority in the House of Commons?

There are 650 seats in the Houses of Commons. In order to be sure of securing their legislative agenda a government needs to hold more than half of those seats, that is 326 seats.

While a plurality (more than half) of the seats in parliament is the magic number on election night, the size of a government’s majority relates to how many more seats it has than all of the other parties in parliament combined. The government’s majority is simply how many more seats a governing party has than the rest of the parties. If the government held only 326 seats, the other parties in parliament would hold the remaining 324 seats giving the government a majority of 2. This is not a very secure majority and the government would need to ensure that most of its MPs were available to vote at almost every vote, but it is a majority

The current government was elected in 2019 with 365 seats, the total number of seats won by the remaining parties was 285, which meant that the government had a majority of 80.

There are, however, a number of MPs who don’t vote in parliament which in effect reduces the size of the House and lowers number of seats needed to have a plurality. The Speaker of the House of Commons by convention does not vote, the Speaker also has three deputies who also don’t vote. These four MPs are usually drawn equally from the two main parties in parliament. The current Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle was elected as a Labour MP. The three deputy speakers are Dame Rosie Winterton who is also a Labour MP, and two Conservative MPs, Dame Eleanor Laing and Nigel Evans. These four MPs don’t vote, which brings the total number of voting MPs down to 646, and the number of seats needed for a majority down from 326 to 324.

In addition to the Speaker and his deputies, seven MPs were elected for the Irish republican party Sinn Fein. These MPs refuse to take the parliamentary oath of allegiance to the Queen and don’t take their seat at Westminster. This reduces the total number of voting MPs in the House of Commons by 11, bringing the size of the House down to 639 seats, and the number of votes needed for a majority down to 320.

The exclusion of MPs who don’t vote also changes the size of the government’s majority. In 2019, of the 639 seats held by voting MPs, 363 were held by Conservative MPs, while the remaining 276 were held by MPs from other parties, leaving the government in effect with a significantly larger majority of 87. This is what is known as the government’s working majority.

In practice then following the 2019 general election in order to win a vote in the House of Commons the government needed to secure at least 320 votes, out of the 363 Conservative MPs. This meant that more than 43 Conservative MPs would need to vote against the government (against the whip) in order for the government to lose a vote in the House of Commons.

How a government’s majority changes

A government’s majority can and often does change in the period between general elections. MPs choose to leave parliament to pursue other careers or through ill health and some may sadly die in office. These departures will result in a by-election which, depending on who wins, may alter the number of seats held by the government or opposition parties. Others may have the whip removed, essentially ejecting them from the parliamentary party. This may be for a variety of reasons: because they have broken parliamentary rules; or broken the law; or because they have refused to vote with the party in parliament. Although these MPs may still sit in parliament, and may continue to vote with their former party, they will not be counted amongst their former party’s MPs. If their behaviour has been sufficiently serious it may trigger a recall procedure which may force them to seek re-election.

All of the above events may result in by-elections which, depending on the result, may change a government’s majority, but it is worth remembering that because there is usually a period of time between an MP leaving parliament and a by-election being held to replace them all by-elections lead to a change in the parliamentary numbers, even if only for a short period of time.

There have been four by-elections since the current government was elected in December 2019. Two of these were held by the same party, in Airdrie and Shotts (SNP) and Batley and Spen (Labour). The Conservatives won the first by-election of the parliament in Hartlepool, briefly increasing their majority, but then lost the seat of Chesham and Amersham to the Liberal Democrats.

There are currently three vacant seats in Parliament,  two caused by the death of sitting MPs, James Brokenshire who died of cancer in October and David Amess, who was murdered later the same month. Another by-election has been triggered by the resignation of the MP, Owen Paterson following his suspension from the House for breaching lobbying rules. The departure of these MPs means that the total number of voting MPs in the House of Commons is currently 636, which means 319 votes are needed to win.

Although this is only one less then following the 2019 election, all three of the vacant seats were previously held by Conservative MPs so their departures have had an impact on the government’s majority. In addition, two Conservative MPs have had the whip withdrawn since the 2019 election. Rob Roberts, the Conservative MP for Delyn was suspended from the Conservative Party in 2020 after being suspended from parliament for sexual misconduct. Imran Ahmad Khan, the Conservative MP for Wakefield was also suspended from the party pending trial for an alleged sexual offence.

The cumulative effect of the three pending by-elections and the two suspensions is that the number of seats held by Conservative MPs is currently 360, down from 365 following the 2019 election, and 358 voting members if one discounts the two deputy speakers. Although several opposition MPs have also been suspended by their parties (2 Labour, 1 each from Plaid Cymru and the SNP) as none have yet left parliament this doesn’t have an impact on the government’s majority which only relates to how many more MPs the government has than the remaining parties combined.

As things stand then, with 358 voting Conservative MPs, and 276 other voting MPs, the government has a working majority of 82, down from 87 following the general election.

Of course, with two by-elections scheduled for December and the third presumably shortly after, and the possibility, likelihood perhaps, of more suspensions or MPs stepping down as a result of the renewed focus on MPs second jobs and expenses, the numbers may change again very soon.

Why don’t all MPs vote in every vote?

Finally, why don’t all MPs vote in every vote in parliament and, if the government has a working majority of 82, why does it not win every vote in parliament by 82 votes?

It is relatively rare for all MPs who can vote to vote at the same time in the House of Commons and while it is rare for the government to lose a vote, the size of its majority will vary from vote to vote. In one recent, albeit slightly unusual, day in the House of Commons on different votes the government’s majority ranged from 18 to 275.

On any given day, a number of MPs will be away from the chamber on other business. Government ministers in particular may have a range of other responsibilities which mean that they can’t be in the House of Commons for every vote. For example, in the last week or so, a large number of ministers, as well as MPs from other parties, have been away from Westminster at the COP26 summit in Scotland. At the same time, some MPs may need to be away from the chamber on personal business, to attend family events such as weddings, funerals or school sports days or important events in their constituencies. In recent years MPs have also been given maternity and paternity leave and MPs, like the rest of us, are also occasionally unwell.

In order to allow MPs to be away from the chamber without affecting the outcome of a vote a system of pairing is in place in which an MP wishing to be absent is paired with an MP from an opposition party who will agree not to vote, in order balance the numbers. Pairing means that on any day the number of votes needed for a majority in the House of Commons will often be less than 326.

Pairing is a well-established convention which is administered by the party whips, but it is not without its controversies. In 2018, during the Brexit votes the Conservative Chief Whip told Conservative MPs to break their pairing arrangements including one with the Liberal Democrat MP, Jo Swinson, who had recently given birth.

Aside from mutual arrangements between MPs who wish to be away from the chamber for various reasons, whether MPs vote will depend on the importance of the vote and whether it is likely to be closely contested. There is a broad acceptance on the part of all parties that if a government has a large majority it can be assured of winning most votes and there is little point in testing this by forcing all of their MPs to vote on every issue. This is partly managed by the whips who will produce a weekly list of forthcoming parliamentary votes and underline them with one, two or three lines depending on how important the vote is. MPs can be assured that on a one-line whip a large number of MPs from both sides of the House will choose to absent themselves and they can safely avoid the vote with little consequence. Moreover, government and opposition parties may not consider the same votes to be important, consequently the difference between the number of government and opposition MPs voting may vary greatly and can exceed the government’s current working majority.

While there is likely to be considerable flexibility on some votes, choosing not to vote on a three-line whip is, however, likely to have serious consequences for the MP concerned. Nevertheless, MPs can and do express their objection to their own party’s position either by voting against the whip or by choosing not to vote at all.

The only votes that are counted at Westminster are those that are made either for or against by walking through the division lobbies. There is no formal mechanism for recording an abstention. At the same time MPs can simply choose not to vote in order to express their unhappiness with what they are being asked to vote on, by staying in the chamber or staying away. Some may wish to go further and vote against their party and vote with the opposition. Although such rebellions, or cross-party voting, are relatively rare in the House of Commons they have become more common in recent years.

One prominent recent example, of both of these things, and of the importance of the parliamentary arithmetic, was the vote for the amendment to overturn the suspension of the Conservative MP, Owen Paterson, and change the standards procedure for the House of Commons. Although the government, in a break with precedent, whipped the vote, only 247 of a possible 358 Conservative MPs voted with the government. Of the 111 Conservative MPs who didn’t support the vote, 13 voted against, which means that 98 did not vote. Some of those 98 MPs would have been paired with opposition MPs who also weren’t in the chamber. However, as only 56 opposition MPs did not vote, at least 41 of the Conservative MPs who didn’t vote with the government could not have been paired with an opposition MP and consequently didn’t vote for some other reason entirely.

That in short is how a government with a working majority of 80, can win a parliamentary vote by only 18.

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It’s not about the clock, but it is time for publishers to rethink the presentation of British politics

While updating my textbook review this year and prompted in part by the publication of several new texts, I was struck by the remarkable lack of variety in the selection of cover images for UK politics textbooks. More specifically I was struck by the ubiquity of the Palace of Westminster or more often one part of the Palace, the clock tower, known to most as the home of Big Ben.

It is worth noting that none of the books above are specifically about Parliament or indeed about clocks. Yet the Westminster Parliament has become a symbol for British politics and the Elizabeth Tower has become a symbol for the Houses of Parliament. It is also worth noting that the authors of the above books will have had little, if any, say regarding the cover artwork and that all of these books offer a much broader perspective on British government and politics than is suggested by the covers.

There is some variety. The covers of two of the above books, the 2nd edition of Michael Moran’s Politics and Governance in the UK and Cocker and Jones’ Contemporary British Politics and Government, also include a nod to the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The latest edition of Griffiths and Leach’s British Politics has Parliament obscured by demonstrators holding flares, which does at least suggest that politics might involve people and take place beyond Westminster.

To be fair to the publishers, the mock-Gothic Palace of Westminster is undoubtedly a photogenic building and easily recognisable. It is also worth considering what the alternatives are? The second most popular cover image on British politics textbooks is the Union flag, something which several of the books above have cleverly managed to combine with the Houses of Parliament. Given that these books are about government and not just Parliament, it is perhaps surprising that the Prime Minister’s residence, 10 Downing Street, has not featured on more covers. It is however, a fairly nondescript terraced house, which unlike Parliament has not attracted the attention of any artists of note and for security reasons is quite difficult to photograph. Given the unpredictable nature of political careers it is also perhaps unsurprising that few publishers have chosen to grace their covers with shots of actual politicians.

Nevertheless, it is perhaps time to think about a different way of presenting British politics to those who are studying it. Time to replace the Palace of Westminster with an image that suggests that politics is fundamentally about people rather than about buildings or even institutions. Also perhaps, an image that reflects the fact that British politics extends some way beyond Westminster, although replacing shots of the Palace of Westminster with the Scottish Parliament or the Sennedd is probably not the answer. Something which reflects the diversity of modern Britain and the dynamism of  current debates in British politics would surely be better than another shot of a nineteenth century palace dressed up to look like something much older. It is not my intention here to suggest an alternative cover image but I will make one suggestion – why not let the people decide? Before publishing the next edition of one of these textbooks perhaps the publishers might run a competition for a cover image and let their readers decide – that’s politics. Only one restriction, no clocks!

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Choosing a politics textbook… again

Choosing a textbook for your first-year politics course can be a daunting prospect, as much for those delivering the course as for students embarking on a degree in politics. As I write this a pile of no less than ten different politics textbooks totters on the edge of my desk, many of them in multiple editions. Most are designed as broad introductions to British government and politics and cover broadly the same ground. Alongside them sits an, albeit smaller, pile of politics dictionaries, and a diverse assortment of general introductions to recent developments. Selecting a single volume from this ever-growing pile is no easy task.

Keeping up with events

One simple and effective criteria is to select the most recently published textbook on the basis that if a week is a long time in politics then the years between editions of most standard textbooks amount to a political epoch. The pace of political change in the UK over the last few years means that most politics textbooks are out of date long before they hit the bookshops. Publishers generally attempt to keep up with the electoral cycle so that new editions of established titles appear after each general election. But with three general elections in five years, interspersed with a referendum on EU membership, the demands of keeping pace with events has posed a particular challenge to publishers and those responsible for writing textbooks.

This year’s students have the benefit of a new edition of the of the popular Politics UK textbook by Bill Jones, Philip Norton and Isabelle Hertner, the 10th edition of which was published in the summer of 2021. Although this is a long-established franchise the latest edition has been substantially revised to reflect recent developments and is almost 100 pages longer than the previous edition. The 9th edition was substantially updated to encompass Brexit and also the impact of the Trump Presidency on the UK. The 10th edition benefits from new chapters on ‘Elites in the United Kingdom’ and ‘Gender and British Politics’ and on ‘UK immigration policy in a hostile environment’. These are very welcome additions and reflect a broader focus on British society and to some extent the inequalities which underpin it, rather than simply focusing on the political process.

Another valuable feature of recent editions of Politics UK is the inclusion of short think pieces at the end of each section under the tagline, ‘And another thing…’ These provide valuable commentary on key issues and events. The 10th edition includes interesting pieces by Julie Smith on Parliament in light of Brexit, John Curtice on Conservative voters, and Philip Collins on the decline of civic discourse.  The only problem with these short commentaries is that one can no longer simply dispose of the earlier edition when a new one is published. While students embarking on a degree in 2021 will be well served  by the 10th edition of Politics UK, they would also be well-advised to seek out earlier editions in order to read the short end-pieces such as those by Simon Jenkins on the future of the UK and Bill Jones on fake news from the 9th edition, Mark Garnett on the 2011 riots, Peter Riddell on the decline of the mainstream media and Michael Moran on whether it is possible to buck the markets from the 8th edition, Andrew Gamble on the legacy of empire and Chris Mullin on the parliamentary expenses scandal from the 7th edition and Hugo Young’s excellent essay in the 6th edition.

It is also worth noting that even the most recent editions of textbooks rarely offer an entirely new perspective on events. One of the reasons that textbooks can go through many editions in a relatively short space of time is that recent developments are generally absorbed into an existing, usually successful, framework. It is the nature of textbooks that they rarely present cutting edge, original research but provide a distillation of current received wisdom on particular issues, and at their best, an introduction to key debates in the wider literature. In the case of the latest edition of Politics UK, for example, aside from three new chapters, the chapter headings and indeed the content is broadly the same as in previous editions.

Partly as a result of this, another criticism of many politics textbooks is that they often focus too much on explaining the relatively unchanging systems of government but provide less effective commentary on the more dynamic politics which takes place within them. While most will provide an introduction to the principal actors and institutions of the British political system they can, at times, read like guidebooks or manuals, which explain how the system works but not why it operates in a particular way. Rather like a Haynes car manual they often adeptly explain how the machine operates without considering the impact of whoever is driving it. This is a point well made in this review from The Times Higher in which Eric Shaw observes that some politics textbooks, including an earlier edition of Politics UK, can:

…leave one with the impression of analysts with a solid mastery of British politics intent on delivering learning in a cool, precise and scholarly manner. Equally [they] exhibit a somewhat Whiggish view of the British political system and never prod the reader in querying fundamentals.

In many of these books the answer to the question ‘who runs Britain?’ often begins something like ‘Britain is a parliamentary democracy….’ which perhaps somewhat misses the point. In response to this, in previous years I have recommended Dearlove and Saunders excellent Introduction to British Politics, which covers much the same ground as many of the other textbooks but in many areas offers a more thoughtful and critical edge. Sadly, the most recent edition was published in 2000 and is unlikely to meet the needs of students starting their degree today, while the previous edition was published in 1991, and was a set text on my own undergraduate degree.

Joint or single-authored?

Another worthwhile consideration is whether textbooks are single-authored or include chapters by a range of different authors. It is the nature of academic research that most scholars tend to develop depth of knowledge over breadth. The advantage of books with multiple authors is that individual chapters are usually contributed by experts on each subject. Single-authored books in contrast reflect the expertise, but also the limitations, of a single author’s knowledge. Writing a textbook which encompasses in some depth every aspect of British government and politics is a tall order, even for the most accomplished scholar, as this article in The Time Higher observed.  Nevertheless, some have managed this with some success.

Moreover, while nobody sits down and reads a textbook in one sitting, books by a single author can sometimes display a coherence and consistency of purpose which can make them more readable than those written by multiple authors. In this regard I have in the past recommended Moran’s Politics and Governance in the UK or John Kingdom’s Government and Politics in Britain over Politics UK. A notable addition to the field in this regard is Andrew Blick’s UK Politics published by Oxford University Press this summer. Blick is a well-respected expert on the UK constitution, amongst other things. His book is particularly good on the location of power in the British political system and the intersection between Government, Parliament and the civil service. In keeping with other recent textbooks on UK politics it also includes interesting material on British society with a valuable chapter on identity, equality and power, as well as a useful chapter on communications and public opinion.

A slightly different kind of politics textbook is represented by the multi-authored or edited collections which don’t seek to explain how the political system works but instead provide informed commentary on the most recent developments. These books won’t help one to understand, for example, how parliament works or the relative merits of different electoral systems, but they will help to explain what impact recent governments have had on political institutions and processes. By seeking to be current, these books have a built-in obsolescence but they are vital and thought-provoking and should be read alongside the standard textbooks. The most prominent example of this genre is the Developments in British Politics series which is currently in its 10th edition, imaginatively entitled Developments in British Politics 10.

Study guides

Recent years have seen a growth in the publication of study guides. Some of these such as the Palgrave Study Skills series are designed for students across disciplines. Of these, Stella Cottrell’s  Study Skills Handbook is still the best, but there are now a bewildering array of other guides in the series covering subjects such as essay writing, undergraduate research and critical thinking.

Discipline specific study guides are less common. The 2nd edition of Robert Leach and Simon Lightfoot’s excellent Politics and IR Companion, was published in 2018, and is probably the most useful volume to sit alongside Politics UK on the politics student’s bookshelf. This invaluable reference work combines short dictionary-type summaries of key concepts and key thinkers with more substantive chapters outlining the evolution of the study of politics and a truly excellent section on study skills which will support undergraduate students from their first lecture to their final exam. The inclusion of a chapter on employability encompassing advice on applying for jobs and internships is a significant addition to this edition.

Another recent example of a student focused guide is Doing Politics by Professor Jacqui Briggs, the sadly departed head of the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Lincoln. This short guide not only provides an introduction to the subject but also invaluable commentary on what one is likely to encounter when studying for a degree in the politics, with details of the likely content of a politics degrees, teaching methods and employment prospects.

In defence of a dictionary

Finally, a word about dictionaries. It may seem somewhat obstinate in the days of the internet and Wikipedia to recommend that students buy something as antiquated as a dictionary but a good dictionary of politics will be an invaluable addition to the politics student’s bookshelf. It is important to remember that studying politics at degree level is a specialist pursuit in the same way as engineering or medicine. One would not expect a medical student to Google a patient’s symptoms, and similarly a politics student confused about the single transferable vote or the nature of multiculturalism would do well to reach for a good dictionary of politics rather than their mobile phone. The latest of edition of the Oxford Concise Dictionary of Politics was published in 2018 and, in a welcome development, has been expanded to encompass international relations. There are other dictionaries on the market. Bill Jones’s, Dictionary of British Politics  is dated but still useful and distinguished by the fact that it focuses solely on British politics, which may or may not suit, while the Routledge Dictionary of Politics contains fewer but often more substantive definitions and is particularly strong on concepts and ideologies. While politics dictionaries are periodically updated, having the most recent edition is less important than with textbooks which deal with events, and older or previous editions can often be relatively inexpensive.

Nobody needs ten politics textbooks, not least me, a single edition of the most recent will generally suffice, as long as one understands that each has its limitations and there is much to be gained from dipping into the others from time to time. Having a copy sitting on the edge of one’s desk will be a considerable source of information, a useful prompt to do some reading and an occasional cure for insomnia. For much else the library beckons.

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Can the Conservatives win in Hartlepool?

Growing up in Hartlepool in the 1970s and 80s it was often said that if you pinned a red rosette on a donkey, although not perhaps a monkey, it would be elected to Parliament. Aside from a brief period from 1959 to 1964 when the seat was held by the Conservatives, Hartlepool has been a Labour seat since 1945.

Labour won the seat once again in 2019 when a host of so-called ‘red wall’ seats fell across the North of England, including bastions of Labour support in the North-East such as Bishop Auckland, Blyth Valley and neighbouring Sedgefield. However, the resignation of the sitting Labour MP, Mike Hill, has triggered a by-election which will offer the Conservatives another opportunity to chip away at the red wall.

A by-election in Hartlepool would not normally attract much attention but political commentators, starved of by-elections for the longest period since the second world war and still digesting the remarkable gains made by the Conservatives in 2019, sense an upset may be on the cards. It is unlikely that this excitement is shared by Hartlepool voters who are being asked to elect their MP for the fourth time in six years, but are they really prepared to deliver the political bombshell that some are anticipating?

Those who think the seat may fall to the Conservatives point in particular to the results of the 2019 election (fig. 1). Labour’s share of the vote in Hartlepool fell from 53% in 2017 to 38% in 2019 and their majority was halved, bringing the Conservatives within 3,600 votes of winning the seat. Perhaps more significantly the Brexit Party, who fielded their leader Richard Tice, won more than ten thousand votes. The combined votes of the Conservatives and the Brexit Party easily exceeded those won by Labour. The not unreasonable assumption is that if just a fraction of Brexit Party voters switch to the Conservatives, then Labour will be in trouble.

Labour’s electoral dominance

It is, however, far from clear that the Conservatives can win in Hartlepool. Although Labour’s share of the vote in Hartlepool has fluctuated, in some cases quite dramatically and the gap between Labour and the Conservatives has narrowed across recent elections, (fig.2), the Conservatives would need to perform spectacularly well to overturn Labour’s hold in Hartlepool. Any incumbent going into a by-election with a 9-point lead over a governing party could normally expect to be reasonably confident of victory. Moreover, the Conservatives have rarely secured more than 30% of the vote in Hartlepool, whereas Labour routinely exceed 40%, and secured over 50% of the vote as recently as 2017. Despite a relatively poor performance in 2019 Labour still managed to rack up more than 15,000 votes, more votes than the Conservatives have attracted at any Hartlepool election since 1992. There are a lot of Labour voters in Hartlepool, if they can be persuaded to turn out and vote. The Conservatives, on the other hand, would need to win the support of new voters.

There are also grounds for thinking that Labour may be in a stronger position both locally and nationally than they were in 2019, and it is notable that while Labour’s majority was cut in 2019, they did manage to hold on when similar seats fell to the Conservatives. It is not yet clear why Mike Hill has resigned as the town’s MP, but he held on in 2019 despite the fact that he had only recently been reinstated by the Labour Party following allegations of sexual harassment. Labour will be hoping that a new candidate with a less tarnished reputation will be able to bring back Labour voters.

Much has also been made of Conservative victories elsewhere on Teesside in 2019 most notably in Stockton South and Darlington and the Conservative victory in the Tees Valley mayoral election in 2017. However, Hartlepool has perhaps more in common with neighbouring Middlesbrough which has returned a Labour MP at every election since it was established in 1974, than the more affluent communities of Darlington and Stockton South, both of which have elected Conservative MPs in the more recent past. It is also worth bearing in mind that the majority of voters in Hartlepool (and Middlesbrough), did not vote for the much vaunted Conservative victor in the Tees Valley mayoral election in 2017.

Moreover, insofar as the national picture will impact on this by election, although support for Labour has dipped in recent opinion polls, the gap between Labour and the Conservatives is narrower now than it was in 2019. Similarly, Keir Starmer’s approval ratings, although lower than the Prime Minister’s, are considerably higher than those of Jeremy Corbyn in 2019, particularly in the north of England.

The Brexit factor

It is also not yet clear what role Brexit might play in this by-election. Euroscepticism has been a strong political force in Hartlepool for more than ten years. The town is to some extent typical of the so-called ‘left-behind’ constituencies which voted strongly for leave in the 2016 referendum. UKIP won their first seat on the local council in 2006. The party came second in the 2015 general election in Hartlepool and second in all but one of the town’s wards in that year’s local elections. Support for leave was particularly strong in the less affluent and Labour voting parts of the town, rather than the Conservative voting wards on the more rural fringes.

It has not yet been announced whether Reform UK, the latest iteration of the Brexit Party, will be fielding a candidate in Hartlepool but their leader Richard Tice tweeted this week that the Conservatives cannot win in Hartlepool, but if they stood aside he could beat Labour. This is a bold claim from someone who came third in 2019, but Tice does have a point. Conservative hopes are built on the assumption that those who voted for the Brexit Party last time will now gravitate towards the Conservatives. However, the Brexit Party attracted more votes from disaffected Labour supporters than from the Conservatives. For Labour voters disillusioned with Westminster politics the step from Labour to the Brexit Party may be a small one compared to switching to the Conservatives. It is not unreasonable to assume that some of these may return to Labour while a sizeable proportion may stay at home.

Moreover, Brexit may not be the most significant issue in this by-election. Britain has now left the EU and a deal has been struck. Labour in particular will want to focus on other issues. The hospital in Hartlepool will be 50 years old next year. An oft-promised replacement just outside the town has never materialised. Moreover, health services in Hartlepool have been significantly eroded in recent years. There is no A&E and only limited maternity provision in Hartlepool, a town of over 90,000 people. Emergency cases and pregnant women can expect to be ferried ten miles down the road to Teesside along a congested stretch of the A19. In this context Labour’s selection of Paul Williams, a doctor who has spent lockdown working in Hartlepool hospital may well pay dividends and may even be enough to eclipse the fact that he lives in Stockton.

Electoral Volatility

Reform UK may yet have an impact on this by-election, but there may also be other beneficiaries of voters’ disillusionment with the established parties. Labour’s hold on Hartlepool’s seat at Westminster belies considerable electoral volatility in the town, which perhaps make it difficult to predict the outcome of the forthcoming by-election. The contest for Hartlepool’s seat in Parliament has not for some time been a straight fight between Labour and the Conservatives. The Liberal Democrats came second in the last by-election in the town, following Peter Mandelson’s departure in 2004, and again in the general election the following year. The party which has come closest to winning the seat from Labour is UKIP who cut Labour’s majority to just over 3000 votes in 2015. In 2019 the Brexit Party were closer to pushing the Conservatives into third place than the Conservatives were to winning the seat.

The extent of electoral volatility and the roots of Labour’s problems in Hartlepool can be more clearly illustrated by looking at second-order elections in the town. The forthcoming by-election is likely to be run in May alongside this year’s local elections when, following boundary changes, all seats on Hartlepool Borough Council will also be up for election.

The last time all seats on the council were contested at the same time was in 2012 when Labour won 23 out of 33 seats. Since then Labour’s control of the council has been eroded by the election of a succession councillors representing small special interest parties and independent candidates. Labour’s difficulties were compounded in 2019 when several Labour councillors left to join the Socialist Labour Party and Labour lost control of the council.  Labour currently holds six out of 33 seats on Hartlepool Borough Council, the Conservatives hold four. There are nine parties represented on the council, including Hartlepool Independent Union (5 seats), Hartlepool People (2 seats) and Putting Seaton First (2 seats) as well as several independent councillors.

It is also worth noting that when the people of Hartlepool were given the opportunity to vote for a directly elected mayor in 2002, they elected the H’Angus the Monkey, the mascot of the local football team. The man in the monkey suit, Stuart Drummond, was re-elected under his own name, for two further terms before the people of Hartlepool voted in a referendum in 2012 to abolish the role of the mayor.

This fracturing of party politics in Hartlepool may have created space for a strong independent local candidate to have a significant impact in this by-election. Monkey suits are optional.

Prior to the 1974 general election the constituency of Hartlepool was known as The Hartlepools, reflecting the town of Hartlepool and the new town of West Hartlepool, which was established in 1847. The two were combined into a single borough in 1967. One still occasionally hears reference to the Hartlepools and the headland area of the town is widely known as Old Hartlepool.

There will be 36 seats on Hartlepool Borough Council contested at this year’s local elections.

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