Hartlepool looks set to turn blue tomorrow after almost half a century in Labour hands.
Polling released ahead of the crucial by-election found that only around 40 per cent of the Labour party’s previous supporters have pledged to back candidate, Dr Paul Williams – a former MP who lost his seat in neighbouring Stockton South in 2019. Not only that, the bookies have now made Tory candidate Jill Mortimer, a farmer and barrister, massive odds-on favourite to win the seat.
It’s something that will no doubt worry Labour leader Keir Starmer who is facing his first big test to win back traditional ‘red wall’ voters. Both Starmer and Johnson have visited the local area in recent weeks, despite playing down their chances in the election. Alas, we headed to Hartlepool on the penultimate day of the election to see what was happening on the ground.
On arrival, we’re almost immediately welcomed by a sign in a shop window close to the train station that reads ‘political journos welcome’. The owner of the shop (and sign) is local man, Alan Teather, a quilter and former army veteran. He tells us he’s voting for Dr Paul Williams in Hartlepool’s by-election because he’s “red through and through.” However, what’s more revealing is that he thinks Labour has “lost the town”, which he says “would be a shame” although it could be “the kick up the backside they [Labour] need” to stop taking red wall seats for granted.
“But at the same time, if she gets in [Tory candidate Jill Mortimer], she’s going to get some crap off the town. Because if she doesn’t bring jobs in within weeks, then Hartlepool will string her up like a monkey, figuratively speaking, of course,” he adds.
“Brought the area up by his bootstraps”
Ironically Alan’s first vote (and last for the Conservatives) was for Margaret Thatcher at 18 on his mother’s advice. He’ll also be voting for Conservative candidate Ben Houchen as Tees Valley Mayor.
“He [Houchen] has brought the area up by his bootstraps. He’s worked tirelessly for the area, and Hartlepool has benefitted from that with the free port and lots of other little bits as well. But for the mainstream Tories for the parliament, I wouldn’t trust them.” He explains.
Not quite red through and through, then, but it’s something we hear time and time again throughout the day.
We ask a group of Labour activists outside Dr Paul Williams’ HQ about the Houchen effect. Is he is a stepping stone for traditional Labour voters looking to move tentatively to the Conservatives? “He’s like a gateway drug,” one of them chuckles.
That young man is Owen Harding, a 22-year-old history student, originally from Bristol but studying in Leeds. He’s just returned from canvassing in Hartlepool centre, which he said went “pretty good”.
“I think people know they’ve got a choice between a doctor, who’s been working in the constituency throughout the Covid pandemic, and someone from Thirsk who’s probably never even been here [Hartlepool] until she was announced as a candidate and lived in the Cayman Islands.”
“Not scared to speak her mind”
However, local businessman Bill Reid, 63, who owns First Class Shoe Repairs, Engraving and Key Cutting in Hartlepool’s the Middleton Grange Centre, disagrees.
“She seems a nice sensible middle-aged lady with a level head on her shoulders who’s not scared to speak her mind – and I like that. And I think she deserves a chance.”
Bill, who was born in Glasgow but moved to the North East when he was 11, was brought up in a Conservative-voting family and admits he’s unlikely to ever change who he votes for. We ask him why he thinks Hartlepool is on the brink of turning blue.
“I honestly think that people are more into their politics, and so they’re looking at other parties. And there’s a lot more on the news and television, and you can go online, so people are looking now. And I honestly think people in Hartlepool know they need a change for the town, and the only way they’re going to get it is to change the local MP,”
However, Labour member and student Ben Fazakerley, 21, from Sunderland, later points out that the Tories are in charge of central government now and have been for over a decade.
“There is the message that people want a change, but it’s also worth thinking about where they’re directing that change. Are they talking about the local MP or a government that’s been in power for over ten years now and who pull strings in the end?” He says.
People only vote Labour “because their parents did”
Later, we wander around outside the shopping centre and chat with two locals sat on a bench opposite a cenotaph. The elderly ladies don’t wish to be named, but one tells us she’s voted Conservative via postal vote. The other, a former life-long Labour voter, wasn’t bothering to vote at all. Both women, however, don’t like Boris Johnson, the Tory describes him as “some sort of comedy puppet”. Though, in almost the same breath, she claims the only reason people vote Labour now is that their parents did.
Hartlepool has been a Labour stronghold since 1974. Labour MP Edward Leadbitter first held the seat from 1974 to 1992 before Peter Mandelson, a key figure in the New Labour movement, was parachuted in in the early 90s – before he had to step down when he became a European Commissioner.
Iain Wright (the MP; not the footballer) won the by-election in 2004, holding the seat until he quit in 2017. Most recently, Mike Hill had represented Hartlepool in the houses of parliament from then until March 2021, when he resigned after facing sexual harassment claims – which he denies.
Another factor that may trouble Labour is that Hartlepool voted strongly for Brexit (69%) in the referendum and the Brexit Party won a quarter of the votes in port town in 2019. Labour’s candidate Dr Paul Williams, however, was an ardent remainer – something those privy to local politics are unlikely to forget. He’s also been criticised by Tory MPs for his alleged role in removing services from Hartlepool hospital in 2013. Although the doctor rejected these criticisms when speaking with the Hartlepool Mail recently.
“The Tories cut funding to the NHS and at the time I was trying to get the best possible deal for my patients.
“It was the only decision because of Tory funding cuts to the NHS, the only safe decision for Hartlepool patients, but we’ll get those services back.” he said.
“We need people to get amongst the working-class and ask them straight out what they want”
After a wander to Hartlepool’s stunning mariner, we spot some Conservative party members about to head out canvassing. As we start chatting to some of them, we’re warned off by a man with a clipboard who directs us to another man, also with a clipboard. Neither of them will allow us to chat to the group of Tories – which are mainly middle-aged men in sharp suits – because ‘they’re volunteers’. Other journalists have also commented that it’s been increasingly difficult to speak to Tory candidate Jill Mortimer who said recently she’d “not spent a lot of time” in the town. It was also revealed she’d lived in the Cayman Islands for a time.
On our way back to the train station as the heavens open, we strike up a conversation with Chris, 66, a military veteran sitting on a park bench in the rain with Susan, 63. Originally from Grangetown, an area close to Middlesbrough, the couple moved to Hartlepool in 2005. Chris tells us he’s not interested in the by-election. He’s voted via post but doesn’t know who the candidates are or where they come from. “I think they’ve come from under a stone somewhere, like all of the other leeches and beetles and bugs, so I’m not interested really,”
His partner Susan, who used to work in the canteen at the Smiths Dock (a local dockyard), tells us she used to vote Labour but hasn’t bothered for the past few years. “Labour was good, then it went downhill, everything got spoilt, the buildings went, the works, the lot,” she explains.
These kind of comments are a running theme throughout the day from a town that feels forgotten or ignored by political parties across the board. Although the polling indicates a huge Tory win, the mood on the ground in Hartlepool won’t fill the party with confidence. Labour will no-doubt be more concerned, but it’s clear that neither candidate is storming ahead in popularity ratings, so for how long they remain in the seat, only time will tell.
Before we head home, Chris makes a suggestion on how politicians can re-connect with constituents of Hartlepool – and it’s something that both parties would be wise to reflect on.
“What we need is for people to get amongst the working-class and ask them straight out what they want. That’s how you find out how people tick.”