|Labour is on course to lose Hartlepool to the Conservatives for the first time in over half a century, according to a new poll of voters in the constituency.
Ahead of a parliamentary by-election in the town on 6 May pollster Survation found the Tories winning 49 per cent of the vote in the seat, compared to 42 per cent for Labour.
And in a surprise development, the Northern Independence Party clocks in at third place, ahead of the Liberal Democrats, Greens, and Reform UK (formerly known as the Brexit party).
The defeat, which would be just the third time in 50 years a governing party has gained a seat at a by-election, would be a huge blow for Keir Starmer, who installed a controversial ally to contest the seat.
Questions were raised about whether Labour candidate Paul Williams was the right man to represent the heavily eurosceptic constituency given his strong support for overturning the EU referendum result and a second referendum.
He also kicked off the campaign being warned by human rights organisation Amnesty International after it emerged he had accepted a £8,700 junket from the Saudi Arabian government and gone on to describe the country as "modern and progressive".
Mr Williams, who was rejected by voters down the road in Stockton in 2019, would replace Mike Hill, who stood down amid claims of sexual harassment.
According to the survey of Hartlepool voters, newcomers the Northern Independence Party trail the two main parties by a vast margin.
But the poll result delighted the new outfit's leadership. In a statement, the group said: "We've not even started our campaign. We've spent nothing on this election. Yet we are already beating established Westminster parties. The Labour Party is a spent force in British politics. They are not a fit opposition to the Tories"
The poll should be treated with caution, however, as constituency surveys have a record of being inaccurate, and its sample size of 502 people means it has a reasonable margin of error. Labour will be hoping that the survey's results galvanise support for it among undecided voters who do not want to see the Tories gain the seat.
But the party faces an uphill struggle, with Keir Starmer appearing to be a drag on Labour's fortunes in the contest. The opposition leader has a net approval rating of -14 per cent in the seat compared to Boris Johnson's +19 per cent.
Supplementary poll questions asked to Hartlepool voters show strong support in theory for a left-wing policy agenda, with 57 per cent wanting Royal Mail nationalised vs 29 per cent opposed, 69 per cent supporting free broadband for all households and businesses vs 18 per cent opposed, and 67 per cent favouring investment in public services over 24 per cent who want the deficit to be prioritised.
Asked about the government's plan for public sector pay, 43 per cent of voters also want nurses to be given a 3 per cent pay rise, 42 per cent a 10 per cent pay rise, and just 10 per cent support the government's mooted 1 per cent pay rise. Two per cent of voters in the seat buy the right-wing argument that nurses should not get a pay rise to match wage repression in the private sector.
Labour has held the seat and its predecessors at every election since 1945, except for a brief period 1959-1964.
Dave Ward, general secretary of the Communication Workers Union (CWU), which commissioned the poll, told the The Times newspaper that Labour’s working class base “has been left shrugging its shoulders and asking, ‘Who are you then?’” of Sir Keir.
Mr Ward added: “Working people want the real thing … politicians that have a moral backbone, that can tell you what they believe because it’s an integral part of who they are and not because it was approved by a focus group and a handful of the political elite.”
The poll shows the Tories on 49 per cent, Labour on 42 per cent, the Northern Independence Party on 2 per cent, the Liberal Democrats on 1 per cent, the Greens on 1 per cent, and Reform UK on 1 per cent.
At the 2019 election Labour won 37.7 per cent, the Tories 28.9 per cent, the Brexit Party 25.8 per cent, and the Liberal Democrats 4.1 per cent.
Labour won 52.5 per cent of the vote in the seat in 2017, increasing its lead over the Tories, who won 34.2 per cent. At that election Ukip came third with 11.5 per cent of the vote.