Red no longer: Hartlepool poised to abandon Labour to hand Boris Johnson a landmark election triumph

Few towns in England have a stronger traditional Labour background than Hartlepool

The sandy beaches and picturesque headland of Hartlepool mask an underbelly of deprivation, a place where the demise of the fishing industry has delivered decades of poverty.

But the small town on the north-east coast of England is not all just about British seaside stereotypes of fish, chips and mushy peas.

It is now the battleground for a closely fought snap election in May that could affect the nation's political leaders and offer a glimpse of how a future election could play out.

Pleasure and commercial fishing boats at Fish Quay on Hartlepool's Headland. Photograph: Stuart Boulton

It is a full 18 months since Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson pulled off a spectacular general election victory by triggering a "blue wave" that smashed the opposition’s traditional “red wall” of seats in the north.

One of the few holdouts in the area was Hartlepool, but the resignation of its sitting MP after sexual harassment allegations opened a path for victory for the Conservatives.

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson visits Moor Farm in Stoney Middleton, England, Friday, April 23, 2021, as part of a Conservative party local election visit. (AP Photo/Rui Vieira, Pool)

Hartlepool's votes provide an indication of how the public views the Mr Johnson’s handling of the pandemic, and could show that he maintains his appeal in these battlegrounds.

The vote on May 6 also provides a test for the new leader of the opposition, Keir Starmer, whose challenge is to reconnect with his party’s traditional voters.

Can the 'reddest of red seats' fall to the Conservatives?

Described by political analysts as the “reddest of red seats”, Hartlepool has been held by Labour since 1964.

"No one should underestimate the importance of this seat," Prof Matt Flinders, chairman of the Political Studies Association of the UK, told The National.

“The seat is an important touchstone and you could argue it is the 'red wall' of all 'red walls'.

“It has a particular resonance with the Labour Party as it was representative of New Labour at the time of Peter Mandelson [its former Labour MP]. A few years ago it would have been absolutely ridiculous it could go blue.

HARTLEPOOL, ENGLAND - APRIL 22: Labour Party leader Sir Kier Starmer visits a chip shop in Hartlepool Marina on April 22, 2021 in Hartlepool, England. The visit comes as the Labour Party campaigns ahead of the May 6 by-election. (Photo by Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)

"But now this by-election matters massively for Boris, he has had a very tricky time since the general election dealing with Brexit and Covid and dealing with the broader levelling up agenda, and a lot of the Conservative MPs in previous 'red wall' seats are very worried.

“If the Conservatives win, it would be a massive confidence boost for those other new MPs in 'red wall' constituencies. It would show that 2019 wasn’t a one-off and that things may have changed permanently.”

Should MP’s know their mushy peas from their guacamole?

Lord Mandelson is a well-educated Londoner and was the architect of New Labour's late 1990s landslide.

While people in Hartlepool scoffed at his lack of presence in the town they still voted for Labour.

The votes stacked up even as rumours spread that he committed the sin of mistaking a traditional northern dish of mushy peas for guacamole when ordering fish and chips on the seafront.

Verrills fish and chip shop on Hartlepool's Headland. Photograph: Stuart Boulton

"It was just daft," said Derek Harrison, a retired fisherman.

"It's just a standing joke now. We have a good laugh about it. When choosing MPs to stand here you'd think they'd pick people who know the area and its people."

Former fisherman Derek Harrison on Hartlepool's Headland. Photograph: Stuart Boulton

The current Labour candidate for the area, Dr Paul Williams, hopes to regain a parliamentary career he lost when he was defeated in neighbouring Stockton South.

His support for remaining in the EU cost him badly. Now he faces criticism after his name was linked with a report recommending hospital cuts.

“We want a decent hospital here and the Labour candidate was the one who shut it down,” said musician Harry Marsh, 82.

“We needed those services. They parachuted him in after the people down the road got rid of him.”

Polls are predicting a win for Boris Johnson’s Conservatives as Brexit comes to the fore

Hartlepool voted 70 per cent in favour of Brexit. The now defunct Brexit Party took 25 per cent of the town’s vote in 2019 and analysts believe the Conservatives may have taken the seat had the vote not been split.

A poll by Survation carried out this month suggested the Conservative candidate Jill Mortimer would win 49 per cent of the vote to Labour's 42 per cent.

The survey found 49 per cent of voters felt favourably towards Mr Johnson, compared with 24 per cent for Mr Starmer.

"Hartlepool may well have fallen to the Conservative Party at the following 2019 general election had the Brexit Party not attracted more than 10,000 votes," Damian Lyons Lowe, chief executive of Survation, told The National.

“Hartlepool has had a generally declining Labour vote in successive Westminster and council elections for the best part of two decades – under former Labour leaders Blair, Brown, Miliband and Corbyn. Labour lost six of the nine seats they held and their control of Hartlepool Borough Council in 2019.

“Should Labour not win the seat at the by-election, this would say very little about Keir Starmer personally, but more about the Labour Party's long-term decline in the types of North and Midlands seats that were lost to the Conservatives at the 2019 general election.”

Mr Harrison, 75, said the fishing industry had been let down since Brexit.

“I had the first boat to make £1,000 in a day catching cod, it’s never been beaten since and it never will,” he said.

Former fisherman Derek Harrison with his dog 'Rosie' on Hartlepool's Headland. Photograph: Stuart Boulton

“Foreign fisherman are still allowed to come within 12 miles of Hartlepool for the next five years, and for many who voted for Brexit in the hope to reclaim British waters it is a bitter blow.

“By the time we come out of the EU there will be nothing left. When I started here there were 67 boats and now only 11 are operating.

"The foreign fishermen are using smaller nets which also take our catch. I’ll be voting Conservative, though, as it’s our best chance.”

Former fisherman Steve Horsley, 66, now repairs nets at the harbour but his work has been depleted over the past six months because of the pandemic.

“The boats are not getting to sea,” he said.

“I’m hardly making any money now. If the fishing industry stays like this there will be nothing left of it after we leave the EU. At the beginning of this year we have seen Norwegian, Dutch and French vessels fishing in the waters. I would never let my family come into the fishing industry now.

“There is no light at the end of the tunnel. In my 50 years at sea I have seen the best and worst of the industry and it is now at its worse.

"I don’t think any of the parties can help us. I think everyone thought Brexit would help us but it has gone the other way. I was all for it.”

Steve Horsley at the Fish Quay on Hartlepool's Headland. Photograph: Stuart Boulton

The other contenders in the election include the newly formed Northern Independence Party, which is calling for a "free north".

Polls put its popularity at 2 per cent and its appeal has been knocked by revelations that its founder, Philip Proudfoot, lives 515 kilometres away in Brighton, in the south of the country.

The Brexit Party's most direct successor party, Reform UK, is currently polling at only 1 per cent.

Will Boris ‘saving’ football win Hartlepool hearts?

A masterstroke by Mr Johnson to boost his position has been his recent foray into the nation's football scandal, deflecting attention from the issues of Brexit and Covid-19.

The north-east of the country is known for its passion for football and local rivalries and Hartlepool is no different.

When the team's club mascot – a monkey called H'Angus, a play on a legend about fishermen in the town who hanged a monkey during the Napoleonic Wars over fears it was a French spy – stood for town mayor as a joke, he was repeatedly elected.

“Everyone was sick of the other political candidates so they voted him in as an independent,” said Dave Horsley, 66.

“It was a bit of a joke but they kept re-electing him. He said he’d give the kids bananas.”

From left, friends Dave Horsley, Dave Latimer and Harry Marsh in conversation at the sea front on Hartlepool's Headland. Photograph: Stuart Boulton

With Hartlepool United on the cusp of promotion from the Conference Premier, news of plans by six Premier League teams to create a European Super League were criticised in the town, with its club's president Jeff Stelling describing it as "absolutely scandalous".

“Thank God I support a proper club,” he said.

The six teams have since announced their withdrawal from the European Super League.

“It’s just scandalous really and if the six of them go and get thrown out of the Premier League, every cloud has a silver lining," he said, prior to the announcement.

“I say just promote the top six from every league throughout the football pyramid and at least those fans will be happy. Of course, that means Hartlepool would be promoted but that wasn’t part of my thinking.”

With fans across the country having reacted with similar anger to the announcement, Mr Johnson's decision to wade in and support the masses by promising to drop a "legislative bomb" to kill off the "cartel" and "protect our cherished national game" will help win points with fans – especially in Hartlepool.

Assistant editor at the Hartlepool Mail, Richard Mannear told The National that the town is passionate about its football.

“They play in the non-league, which is quite far removed from the upper echelons, but the fans were still bewildered at the greed of the move,” he said.

“Hartlepool is a very passionate place and has a huge fan base, the idea of an ESL closed shop did not sit well with them.”

Prof Flinders, founding director of Sheffield University's Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics, said Mr Johnson was wise to comment on the issue so close to the crunch by-election.

"The football issue shows how Boris has enormous intelligence when understanding what large parts of the British society are interested in," he told The National.

“They care about football, he made a rapid and clear stance and immediately the scheme collapsed. It will hold him in some stead. Hartlepool likes its football.”

Labour reveals deprivation figures and overhauls local party

While sport might deflect from the pressing problems of unemployment in the area, in a town ranked as the 10th most deprived in England in 2019, the Labour Party emphasised how the town has been effected during recent Conservative rule.

Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, visited Hartlepool and revealed that manufacturing jobs have more than halved, 1,600 skilled jobs have been lost and apprenticeship starts are at a 10-year low in the town.

“We were promised ‘levelling up’ but under the Tories the people of Hartlepool have been let down and sold out,” she said.

But analysts say it has an uphill battle because residents feel like they has been taken for granted by the town's previous Labour MPs.

“The big issue for Keir Starmer's Labour Party is that it is making no traction and is going backwards,” Prof Flinders said.

HARTLEPOOL, ENGLAND - APRIL 23: Labour Party leader Sir Kier Starmer (L) and Dr Paul Williams, Labour Party candidate for Hartlepool wave at motorists as they arrive for a visit to the Cameron’s brewery in Hartlepool on April 23, 2021 in Hartlepool, England. The visit comes as the Labour Party campaigns in the town ahead of the May 6 by-election. (Photo by Ian Forsyth - WPA Pool /Getty Images)

"Post-Brexit Boris is still putting his feet in his mouth and coming out on top and this is a really big challenge for Labour backbenchers to see if Sir Keir has the personality to really connect with voters. At the minute it is not really happening.

“Labour has taken the seat for granted for generations. The local Labour Party seem to be working in a tribal old world type of politics and people are feeling completely alienated.”

Brenda Harrision, a prominent Labour councillor, said the need for the party to present new political messages was strong.

“We need change in Hartlepool because the tired civic centre councillor culture has failed us too many times and that is why we have selected more new candidates this year than at any time in our history,” she said.

Hartlepool's Headland. Photograph: Stuart Boulton

"Their real-life experience is what we need to bring about change in our council in the town.”

Experts say the election is still too close to call but believe Mr Johnson could still achieve success.

“So far the surveys suggest he can do it or at the very least the gap has closed massively,” Prof Flinders said.

“Boris can’t really lose because he is going to close the gap significantly whatever happens, if he loses he will still claim he is doing well and the tide is changing. If he wins it will be a miracle for him.”

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