Johnson triumph as Labour loses Hartlepool

Smashed: Labour’s so-called ‘Red Wall’ once spanned the north of England. (Apologies to The Sun).

Do morals no longer matter in politics? As the Conservatives celebrate victory today, many wonder how a politician so mired in scandal as Boris Johnson can keep winning elections.

The tension was rising at Hartlepool leisure centre.

Throughout the night, officials spent hours painstakingly counting every vote cast in the by-election. There was only one question on everybody’s minds: who would be the north-eastern town’s new representative in Parliament?

Finally, just after 7am, the results were in. The Conservatives had triumphed, winning Hartlepool for the first time since the constituency was created in 1974 with a huge majority of nearly 7,000. For Yorkshire farmer and new Tory Member of Parliament Jill Mortimer, it was a stunning achievement.

Meanwhile, for opposition leader Keir Starmer, this morning’s defeat is a shattering blow. Labour has lost the last four general elections. Now, they have lost yet another crucial seat to the governing party – an event so rare in by-elections it has only happened twice before in the last 40 years.

The fact that the seat in question is Hartlepool, one of the last remaining bastions of Labour’s Red Wall, makes the defeat even more damaging for Starmer. Many will ask today whether Labour is on its last legs.

But it is not only Labour activists who are worried. Every healthy democracy needs a strong opposition to hold the government to account. Today, the Conservative government is looking increasingly untouchable.

So how did the Tories win Hartlepool, a town described by one analyst as “the reddest of red seats”?

The experts are baffled. Conservative leader Boris Johnson has faced scandal after scandal. He was fired from his first job as a journalist at The Times newspaper after making up a quote. Then, in 2004, he was sacked again as Shadow Arts Minister after lying about an affair.

He has said that Muslim women wearing veils look like “bank robbers” and once called the children of single mothers “ill-raised, ignorant, aggressive and illegitimate”. In public, he refuses to say how many children he has.

As foreign secretary, he wrongly told MPs that a British woman jailed in Iran on suspicion of spying was teaching journalism. In reality, she was on holiday. According to one 2019 poll, just one in five Britons trust him.

Now, Johnson has been accused by former adviser Dominic Cummings of an “unethical, foolish and possibly illegal” plan to have political donors pay to furnish his flat.

For any other politician, it would be a recipe for disaster. Yet time and time again, Boris Johnson has sailed to electoral success. He was voted in twice as the Mayor of London and was the face of the winning Brexit campaign.

Then, in 2019, less than six months after replacing Theresa May as Prime Minister, he led the Conservatives to a landslide victory at the general election.

“Lots of people are just awed by his charisma,” says British politics professor Nicholas Allen. “They know that he is problematic. They know that he’s a flawed character and they do not care. If anything, they love him more for it.”

Do morals no longer matter in politics?

Lovable rogue?

It is true, say some. In the information age, voters are bored by traditional, polished politicians. With thousands of headlines published every day online, it is the candidates with the most personality and charisma that remain at the forefront of voters’ minds. Sleaze and scandal no longer signal the end of a political career - just look at Donald Trump’s meteoric rise to the US presidency.

Morals DO still matter, say others. MPs regularly quit their roles in the government and the shadow cabinet when they disagree with official policy. Voters still make their opinions heard. In 2019, disgraced MP Fiona Onasanya lost her seat after residents signed a recall petition. And the Hartlepool by-election is only happening because the town’s former MP resigned amid harassment allegations.

You Decide

  1. Should we hold politicians to higher standards than other people?
  2. Does a politician’s personal morals matter more than their policy positions?

Activities

  1. Imagine you are filming a news report with Jill Mortimer, the new MP for Hartlepool. In pairs, take it in turns to ask and answer questions.
  2. In small groups, research the results of UK general elections over the last decade. Make a list of trends you notice, with some possible explanations.

Some People Say...

“The government you elect is the government you deserve.”

Thomas Jefferson (1743 – 1826), American lawyer and president

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that the Conservative party has become one of the most successful political parties in the Western world. The Tories have governed the UK for 60 of the last 92 years. Tim Bale, a politics professor, believes that the secret to the Conservative’s electoral success is adaptability. The party has a flexible ideology, for example switching from pro-EU to anti-EU policies, and its internal structure means it can quickly dismiss leaders who are unpopular with voters.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate surrounds what the Conservatives’ win in Hartlepool will mean for the future of Keir Starmer. The by-election is the first to take place since Starmer became Labour leader in 2020. Some say the defeat in a former Labour area is a disaster for Starmer. Others point out that Hartlepool would have likely elected a Tory MP in 2019 if the Brexit Party had not split the anti-EU vote, and that Starmer still has three years left to campaign before the next general election.

Word Watch

By-election
A by-election occurs when a seat in the House of Commons becomes vacant between general elections.
Tory
A nickname for the Conservative party. It was originally an insult, derived from the Irish word for “outlaw”.
Bastions
Bastions are a type of angular fort which are built sticking out from a wall to protect it from enemies.
Red Wall
The Red Wall is a swathe of parliamentary seats across the north of England and the Midlands that used to reliably vote Labour, but switched to the Conservative party in 2019.
Jailed
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian dual citizen, has been detained in Iran since 3 April 2016. She was found guilty of “plotting to topple the Iranian government”.
Dominic Cummings
Cummings was Boris Johnson’s chief adviser until November 2020. His trip to Durham during the first coronavirus lockdown caused a political scandal last year.
Fiona Onasanya
A former Labour MP for Peterborough who was convicted of lying to police over a speeding ticket. More than a quarter of the constituency’s residents signed the recall petition.

Subjects

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