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 turnout for the Conservatives this time around, 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. 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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Are attitudes towards the Empire changing?

Recent years have seen a growing interest and some considerable debate about the legacy of the British Empire. Critics of the Empire have long claimed that the British often have a rose-tinted view of Empire and that more should be done to educate the public about the damaging consequences of colonialism. The Labour Party manifesto for the 2019 general election include a commitment to:

Conduct an audit of the impact of Britain’s colonial legacy to understand our contribution to the dynamics of violence and insecurity across regions previously under British colonial rule.

A separate race and faith manifesto pledged to ensure that ‘the historical injustices
of colonialism’ were properly integrated into the National Curriculum.

The Black Lives Matter protests which sprang up across the UK in the summer of 2020  also raised questions about the commemoration of Britain’s colonial past and led in part to the toppling of the statue of the Bristol slave trader, Edward Colston. While some expressed disquiet at the manner of the statue’s removal,  several other councils responded by removing statues, and the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, announced the establishment of a Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm, to review the context of the capital’s street names, names of public buildings and memorial plaques.

Recent years have also seen the publication of a number of prominent studies of Britain and Empire by authors, including David Olusoga, Priyamavada Gopal and Sathnam Sanghera, whose work is shaped in part by their own experience of race in modern Britain. To some extent the work by these authors, and others, has been instrumental in reclaiming the history of empire from white British authors who had previously dominated the field.

There has been a, perhaps predictable, response to this from some who claim that seeking to provide a more complete picture of the impact of empire both on Britain and its former colonies is somehow erasing Britain’s past. The National Trust has been heavily criticised for supporting research on the links between colonialism and Britain’s stately homes, many of which profited from the slave trade. Earlier this year the Culture Secretary, Oliver Dowden, reportedly told Britain’s leading heritage bodies that it was their duty to defend Britain’s history from those who would ‘do Britain down.’

In this context it is often noted that for many Britons the Empire is a source of national pride. There is certainly evidence to support this. In a YouGov poll in 2014, 59% of respondents said that the British empire was something to be proud of, while only 19% thought it was a source of shame. In 2020 research by YouGov on public attitudes to empire in eight former colonial powers indicated that the British public were second only to the Dutch in viewing their empire as a source of national pride.

There is, however, some evidence that the British public’s support for empire has changed in  recent years. There have been several polls since 2014 which indicate a significant drop in the proportion expressing pride in the British Empire (figure 1). When YouGov asked about this again in 2016, only 44% said they felt that Britain’s history of colonialism was something to be proud of, and this had fallen to 32% when YouGov asked again in mid-2019. This was also reflected in an Ipsos Mori poll from August 2020, in which 34% said they felt the British Empire was something to be proud of.

The decline in support for the Empire, has not, however, resulted in an increase in those who feel ashamed of Britain’s imperial past. Across the four polls mentioned above, no more than 21% said that they felt that the Empire was something to be ashamed of, and in the most recent poll only 16% thought it was a source of shame. It is notable that in the most recent polls pride in the Empire has been replaced by ambivalence or perhaps even indifference, with the largest proportion of respondents (37% according to YouGov and 40% for Ipsos Mori), supporting the view that the Empire is neither something to be proud or ashamed of.

It is tempting to suggest that the decline in support for empire in recent years is a response to events such as the Black Lives Matter protests and the broader public debate about the commemoration of Britain’s imperial past. The context for the four polls certainly may have had some impact on the results.  The 2014 poll which suggested high levels of support for the Empire took place at the time of the Commonwealth Games, which may have elicited a more positive view of Britain’s impact on the world. In contrast the subsequent polls all took place in the context of heightened public debate about the negative consequences of empire. The 2016 poll was taken at the time of, and included questions about, protests over the statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College, Oxford. Similarly, the 2020 Ipsos Mori poll took place shortly after that summer’s Black Lives Matter protest, and included questions about support for the aims of the movement. While the 2019 YouGov poll took place in the context of Britain’s protracted withdrawal from the European Union, which several commentators have linked to imperial nostalgia.

These polls and others also reveal some other reservations about Britain’s imperial past. In the 2016 YouGov poll, while only 21% felt the empire was something to regret, a larger proportion (29%) thought that Britain ‘tends to view its history of colonisation too positively’, although 28% thought it was viewed too negatively. Another YouGov poll in November 2019 revealed strong support for the Labour leader’s call for more education about the negative consequences of empire, with 69% supporting the view that historical injustice, colonialism and the British Empire should be included in the national curriculum. Ipsos Mori’s 2020 poll revealed that a majority of the public (51%) supported the aims of the Black Lives Matter movement, while only 20% were opposed, with 24% expressing no opinion.

The British empire was vast and lasted for a very long time. It was undoubtedly responsible for some of the worst atrocities committed by man, including slavery and genocide. It also included significant examples of entrepreneurialism, altruism and humanitarianism. The history of empire is complex, as is its legacy. Questions about whether the whole imperial experience can be reduced to a sense of pride or shame are perhaps, ultimately unhelpful. But if, as some of the polls presented here suggest, attitudes are subject to change, then there is scope for debate about that legacy, and if moreover there is an appetite for more education about Britain’s imperial past, then that at least is something to be welcomed.

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Parliamentary Private Secretaries and the payroll vote under Boris Johnson

The Government has published the latest list of Parliamentary Private Secretaries (PPS). I have written a number of previous posts about the role and particularly the rise in the number of Parliamentary Private Secretaries in recent years. I won’t repeat myself here other than to note that these unpaid positions are generally seen as the first rung on the ministerial ladder and, like ministers, MPs who are parliamentary private secretaries are expected to remain loyal and vote with the government. As such the offer of a position as a PPS, like ministerial office, is often seen as a carrot to guarantee support in the chamber of the House of Commons.  Despite the fact that PPSs do not receive a ministerial salary the combination of paid and unpaid ministerial positions is sometimes referred to as the payroll vote.

The size of the payroll vote has increased considerably in recent years leading to criticism that governments have used this form of patronage to pack the chamber with guaranteed votes. Although the number of paid ministerial positions is limited by law, there is no cap on the number of parliamentary private secretaries.

The latest data release indicates that there are 41 parliamentary private secretaries. This looks like a significant increase in the number of these posts under Boris Johnson. There were only 34 PPSs on the final list released under Theresa May in June 2019. However, this was perhaps more a reflection of the difficulties May faced in filling government posts as her government limped towards its demise. Previous lists released under Theresa May in 2017 and 2018 indicated there were 45 and 46 parliamentary private secretaries.

The total number of MPs currently holding government posts is on a par with recent governments. There are currently 80 MPs holding ministerial posts in the House of Commons and 13 serving as Whips. When combined with 41 parliamentary private secretaries this makes a payroll vote of 134 MPs. This is less than the 140 MPs holding government posts under Theresa May in 2018, and significantly lower than the high point of 148 under the coalition government in 2014.

Moreover, while the size of the payroll vote has changed little under the current government, the size of the government’s majority means that the proportion of Conservative MPs holding government positions is considerably lower than under David Cameron or Theresa May. Only 31% of those sitting on the government benches currently hold a government post, compared to 45% even in the final months of the Theresa May government.

Many would argue for the need to address the rise in the payroll vote, including perhaps a further limit on the number of ministerial posts and a cap on the number of parliamentary private secretaries. However, as the current government may discover with significant disgruntlement on the backbenches, political patronage may only stretch so far.

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Watching from the wings: the role of the PM’s PPS in a socially distanced House of Commons chamber

PMQs 6 May 2020 – the Prime Minister has often seemed isolated at recent PMQs. (Source: Parliamentlive.tv)

It is clear that the Prime Minister is struggling in his the weekly encounter with the Leader of the Opposition at Prime Minister’s Questions. As the Prime Minister, somewhat bizarrely, keeps reminding us Keir Starmer is a former barrister who is always well prepared and not unfamiliar with the adversarial system. The PM on the other hand is not a details man, but does seem to enjoy playing to a crowd. He would clearly be more comfortable in a full House of Commons chamber with ranks of Conservative MPs behind him willing to laugh like drains at his every quip. At times he seems like a lonely figure sitting in the middle of a largely vacant Treasury bench.

The social distancing arrangements in the House of Commons have left the Prime Minister isolated in more ways than one. Aside from depriving him of the comforting presence of his backbenchers, social distancing in the Commons chamber may well be depriving the PM of a more direct form of assistance at PMQs. As I have written previously, when answering questions in the Chamber, Prime Minsters are usually supported by one or possibly two Parliamentary Private Secretaries who sit on the bench behind them, armed with a folder of prepared briefing notes ready to pass to the Prime Minister in response to any question.

If social distancing has altered the theatre of PMQs, careful scrutiny of recent performances reveals a interesting change in the dramatis personae. Under the current arrangements there are usually only three people sitting on the Treasury bench for PMQs, and nobody in the row behind. As a result Parliamentary Private Secretaries can no longer sit behind the PM, pass notes over his shoulder or whisper in his ear. Moreover, the Treasury bench is reserved for Ministers and consequently the opportunity is not available for a PPS to sit alongside the PM.

Indeed for several weeks following the Prime Minister’s return to the chamber following his bout of Coronavirus, the Prime Minister’s Parliamentary Private Secretaries were not visible in the chamber at all during PMQs. Although camera angles make it difficult to be certain about this, they were certainly not seated anywhere near the Prime Minister. This perhaps contributed to the Prime Minister’s faltering performances on his return to the Commons.

For several weeks the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, occupied the end of the front bench nearest to the Prime Minister. This was perhaps a means of signalling the Government’s priority in tackling the Coronavirus. The Health Secretary was also presumably in a position to pass details to the PM about the Government’s progress in combating the virus. Across the aisle, the front bench furthest away from the Speaker’s Chair was occupied by the Chief Whip, Mark Spencer, and the Deputy Chief Whip, Stuart Andrew.

On 20 May, the Health Secretary was not in the chamber for PMQs and his position nearest to the Prime Minister was taken by the Chief Whip as it has been for subsequent PMQs. (This is mirrored on the other side of the chamber where the Labour Chief Whip Nick Brown has been a regular fixture on the end of the front bench nearest to Keir Starmer.) The Conservative Deputy Chief Whip moved up to occupy the seat across the aisle from the Chief Whip and the remaining position on the front bench was taken by one of the Prime Minister’s PPSs, Alex Burghart. In the course of PMQs, Burghart can clearly be seen leafing through the thick folder of briefing notes. In recent weeks Andrew and Burghart have swapped positions so that the PPS is sitting across the aisle from the Treasury bench and only a short distance from the PM.

PMQs 15 July 2020 – the Prime Minister’s PPS Alex Burghart can be seen in the middle of shot with the PMQs folder. (Source: Parliamentlive.tv)

In recent weeks both of the Prime Minister’s PPSs have been visible in the chamber at PMQs. Burghart in his, by now customary, position nursing the folder across the aisle from the Treasury bench. The Prime Minister’s other PPS, Trudy Harrison, can often be seen at the other end of the Conservative front bench standing in the wings just behind the Speaker’s Chair. She too is holding what is presumably a copy of the PMQs briefing notes.

PMQs 15 July 2020 – the PM’s other PPS Trudy Harrison can be seen holding a folder standing just to the left of the Speaker’s chair (Source: Parliamentlive.tv)

What is not clear from the broadcast footage is what these PPSs are able to do to support the Prime Minister in the chamber or even how they are able to communicate with him. It may be that their presence alone provides some reassurance, but the hefty folder on Burghart’s knee suggests a more substantive role. The most important role of the PM’s PPS is almost certainly in preparing the Prime Minister for PMQs, but the re-emergence of these important actors onto the stage suggests that they also have an important supporting role in shoring up the Prime Minister’s performance in the chamber.


All photos are stills taken from Parliamentlive.tv  or UK Parliament YouTube channel.

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An increasingly costly resource: are special advisers value for money?

In recent weeks questions have been raised about the involvement of the Prime Minister’s special adviser, Dominic Cummings, in decision-making in relation to the government’s response to the Coronavirus pandemic. This is not the first time that questions have been asked about the role of special advisers in the Johnson government. The Prime Minister’s decision to appoint the mercurial Cummings as a special adviser raised eyebrows and a few hackles in Westminster, when it was announced in July 2019. In August 2019 it was reported that the Chancellor, Sajid Javid was unhappy that one his special advisers had been sacked on the instructions of number 10. The Chancellor resigned in February apparently after being instructed to replace his entire team of advisers with individuals chosen by Number 10.

Javid’s resignation and the apparent desire of number 10 to control the appointment of special advisers suggests that they are viewed by ministers as an important resource and also, perhaps, as something of a status symbol. However, their role is in many respects somewhat obscure. Special advisers are temporary civil servants appointed to provide political advice to ministers. They are not appointed through the standard civil service recruitment and have a separate code of conduct. They are not bound by the duty of impartiality and objectivity which underpins the work of civil service, yet this elite group of occasionally troublesome political appointees are funded from the public purse. Moreover the annual increase in their numbers means they are becoming an increasingly costly resource.

Some element of transparency is provided through the annual special adviser data release. In recent years the government has adopted a practice of releasing these data just before the Christmas recess when it is often lost amongst other news. The 2019 release appeared on the 20th December, the day Parliament rose for the Christmas recess and only days after Parliament returned following the general election, almost guaranteeing it would pass largely unnoticed.

Following last year’s release, I wrote a post for Democratic Audit in which I noted that the number of special advisers has increased almost year on year since 1997 and that the upward trend has been particularly steep since 2010. This is notable not least because in opposition the Conservative Party had been critical of Labour’s use of special advisers and the 2010 Conservative manifesto had declared:

We will put a limit on the number of special advisers and protect the impartiality of the civil service.

The number of special advisers has increased again under Boris Johnson, from 99 in the final set of figures released under Theresa May, to 108 under the current government. This is only the second time that the total number of special advisers has exceeded 100, the previous occasion was under the coalition government in 2014 (see below). The numbers initialled increased considerably under the coalition, partly as a result of demands for special advisers from Ministers from both parties in the coalition. The numbers had fallen towards the end of the coalition but have risen steeply again since 2016.

This year’s increase is in part attributable to the number of special advisers located in number 10. This has increased from 37 under Theresa May to 44 under Johnson. This perhaps reflects an attempt to concentrate more power in Downing Street. The number of advisers allocated to number 10 is almost back to the peak of 46 in 2014. However, unlike under the coalition, when number 10’s special advisers were shared between David Cameron and the Deputy PM, Nick Clegg, the current batch are entirely at the Prime Minister’s disposal.


The cost of special advisers

Another consequence of the increase in numbers is that there has been a significant increase in the cost of special advisers. The annual data release provides details of the total salary cost of special advisers and the four pay bands under which they are appointed (see below). Special adviser annual salaries range from £40,000 to £145,000. While individual salaries for all special advisers are not published, in keeping with other senior civil service appointments, details are provided for those whose annual salary exceeds £70,000.

Taken from Annual Report on Special Advisers, 2019

The total cost of special advisers has increased considerably in the last year from £8.1 million in the 2017-18 financial year to £9.6 million in 2018-19. This included around £208,000 in severance payments, although this does not include those who left posts since Boris Johnson took over as PM including those special advisers whose sacking led to the resignation of the Chancellor. These costs are therefore likely to be significantly higher in the next financial year.

Any increase in costs will also be in no small part due to an increase in the number of the most highly paid special advisors since Johnson became PM. Under Theresa May there were five special advisers in the highest pay band, those earning over £96,000 p.a., while under Boris Johnson there are nine, including Dominic Cummings and the Downing Street Director of Communications, Lee Cain. All but one of the most highly paid special advisors are located in Number 10, with one working for the Chancellor. Seven of those in the top pay band have salaries in excess of £120,000, compared to four under Theresa May. This does not include Cummings who enjoys a relatively modest salary of between £95,000 and £99,999. Significantly, however, the total cost of special advisers in the top pay band has almost doubled under Johnson from £620,000 in 2018 to £1,149,994 in 2019.


Special advisers are now an established fixture in the machinery of the UK government. They are a significant resource which ministers clearly value and jealously guard. Although there is now considerable transparency around who these individuals are and what they earn, as recent events have shown, the precise nature or their role, powers and influence is not always so clear. If their numbers and associated costs keep on rising, questions will understandably be asked about whether this expensive resource is a worthwhile use of taxpayers’ money.


The role of special advisers was considered in more depth in an excellent Institute for Government live discussion, ‘The good the SpAd and the ugly: special advisers in government’. Available here and here.

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