May 7, 2021

As I step out of Hartlepool station, I see the Prime Minister’s motorcade. It is neurotically large. The cognitive dissonance of these cars with the landscape — rotting Edwardian houses, boarded up hotels — is shocking because in Hartlepool decline meets you like a wall of heat. There are shards of past wonder — a ruined church, a sailing ship in the marina — but they are singular, choked by ring roads and sprawl.

The Tories think they will take this seat from Labour in the by-election on Thursday called after the Labour MP Mike Hill quit, beset by allegations of sexual misconduct. They may well: another brick from the wall. (Hartlepool has been Labour since the seat was created in 1974.)

The first potential voters I meet wait for theocracy, which is a fair measure of alienation. Still, they are chirpy because they have given up on politics, and the weather is fine.

They are three elderly women, sunning themselves by the war memorial. “We don’t vote for any political party,” says one, “because we are a non-political organisation and the only one is Jehovah God. His kingdom is the kingdom that will rule the earth. We know by the things that are happening now. No government in the world can solve these problems. Only God. We need theocracy.” I try to imagine the logo on a leaflet and fail.

“There was a lot here once upon a time,” says the second, “It’s declining. It’s all Christmas cracker factories. Not real jobs. For men. All the mines have gone, everything substantial has gone.” “I don’t like Hartlepool at all,” says the third. “There is nothing in Hartlepool that interests me”. “Well, you’re here,” says the second. “Just the shopping,” says the third.

“I think the general air is one of despair really,” says the first. “Not despair, despair is a strong word. Helplessness.”

My notebook is full of such quotations; one man of 86 tells me, in all seriousness, that he is too old to vote. Hartlepool once made ships; it had 43 ship-owning companies in 1913. Now it makes ennui. It has some of the highest rates of male unemployment (9.7%) and child poverty (32% of children in workless households) in Britain. The A&E has gone, the police lock-up and magistrates court have gone, and maternity services have gone. No one is born in Hartlepool anymore, except in error.

A vacuum is also an opportunity: the Tories sent Johnson to Hartlepool United, to kick a ball in support of the candidate, “a farmer and businesswoman” from Yorkshire called Jill Mortimer, who is dogged by rumours that, prior to her candidacy, she never visited Hartlepool, or had a proper job. (That, here, is quite relatable.) She says not. She has raised cattle and run a B&B, cites a Hartlepool-born relative, and says she has visited the battery museum, which is apt.

If Hartlepool falls, it will not be a victory for Conservatism, unless you are cynical. “For 47 years, Hartlepool has had Labour MPs,” says Mortimer’s campaign literature, “it is why the town has been taken for granted and struggled. I’ve brought Boris to Hartlepool twice already during this campaign,” she adds, as if presenting a wrapped gift, a piece of human infrastructure. Its fall will, rather, be a fable about political failure: a story of disconnection, hubris and, of course, class.

There are two Hartlepools: the Headland (“The Heugh”), an ancient fishing village, and the newer West Hartlepool (Hartlepool means “stag pool”). I go to the Headland. There is a fabulous Norman church, St Hilda’s, built on the site of a 7th century abbey, named for the patron saint of poetry. Its bells cannot be rung, due to weakness of the tower. What a metaphor! There are fine Georgian and Victorian houses on the sea, but they are crumbling, and in the gaps when others have fallen, modern housing: a history of English architecture, in mistakes. “It could have been another Whitby,” says a man fixing a burglar alarm. But the Labour council was careless of this treasure, and it wasn’t.

Many things have harmed Labour here: corruption, individualism and the desire to punish the villain they can touch. “Here Labour is the establishment,” says Rachel Featherstone, the Green Party candidate. But the most important is a failure of representation which Brexit exposed so gaudily it could not be ignored. Labour is two parties now, co-existing uneasily, which is why Keir Starmer is pale with fretting: pro-Remain London and the other affluent cities, and places like this. The two despise each other, but only one side will admit to it.

It is pitiful that no native pro-Brexit Labour candidate from a town with 100,000 residents could be found. Perhaps they were not sought. Labour’s man, Paul Williams, was born in Canterbury, educated in Cambridgeshire, worked in Stockton-on-Tees where he was an MP 2017-19, and was a Remainer, while 69.6% of this constituency voted to leave.

A former magistrate describes the main candidates: “One [Mortimer] is north Yorkshire and the other one [Williams] was the MP for Stockton. He didn’t represent the people of Stockton when they wanted to vote for Brexit [by 61.7%] so how can you trust him? He ignored the electorate so I wouldn’t vote for him if he was the only person standing. I’d tear my vote up. I really would”.

A workman on Scarborough Street, formerly Labour, now Tory, says: “A hell of a lot of red wall people voted Brexit and they [Labour] knew that. They went against them all, that’s why they lost the last election by a massive landslide: ‘we’re ignoring what you said, we’re going to stop in Europe no matter what’”. He says he misses Tony Blair, and I don’t blame him. Child poverty fell by 13% in the North East between 1999 and 2013. Between 2013 and 2019 it rose by 9%, three times faster than the national average, and it is still rising. Unfortunately, the most vocal local Socialists — the Northern Independence Party — want a referendum on secession from the United Kingdom, will call their state Northumbria, and are not granting interviews to me.

I eat roast beef in the Cosmopolitan pub — the name is a gag — on the Headland, and I meet the landlord, the independent councillor Tim Fleming. Fleming says: “We’ve had enough of people just getting dumped on us, ‘oh that’s a safe seat, put him there’. It’s the London Labour Party where it [the rot] started.”

For Fleming, some voters have passed beyond despair to cynicism. “If you have a Tory up as mayor in Teesside [Ben Houchen] and a Tory in Hartlepool — all the Tories in all the towns they’ve took over — they might do [something] because they might be looking to build a new power base that’s longer lasting than the one they’ve had. They’ve never had anything in the North so who knows? If he [Houchen] gets re-elected, there’ll be nothing if we have a Labour MP and a Labour council in Hartlepool. No money will come here, never has done”. The Green Party candidate Rachel Featherstone calls this “a protection racket”.

Labour councillors, Fleming says, have voted against a council tax freeze, but didn’t vote against a 30.8% rise in their allowances. It was another tipping point; Hartlepool has the highest rate of council tax in the country proportionate to the value of property. Fleming, though, has a sense of humour. “If only Richard III had won the Wars of the Roses,” he says, “he was more northern-based”.

In the car park opposite David Bettney, a former Regimental Sergeant Major in the Light Dragoons, and the Social Democrat candidate, is talking to a smudge of supporters, after which he will be driven round the Headland in a tank. Bettney says Labour’s decline mirrored the decline of local industry: “Before you had a captive audience. Trade unions used to get them at election time, [they] were like, ‘here’s your MP’. They don’t have that hold anymore. Everyone is splintered now. They are working out of their white van.  They can come to their own opinions, not a herd opinion. I don’t know a single labourer that votes Labour.”

Bettney thinks an elite stole the Labour Party. “When is the last time you’ve got someone with a regional accent from Labour?” he asks. “They are all replaced by people who’ve gone to university and are from Wiltshire — or whatever. It wouldn’t matter if it was just now and again, but it’s happened everywhere. They are not representative of anybody in these areas.”

To redeem Labour, Bettney says, “All MPs would have to sack themselves.” They preach inclusivity, he says, but they will not allow their own former voters to be themselves; is that really emancipation? Bettney imagines a voter saying, ‘I’m proud to be from Hartlepool’ or ‘I’m proud to be from Yorkshire’. “You can’t say that [in Labour]: ‘it’s bigoted; it’s racist’. You are robbing them of any self-worth.” His conclusion is this: “Labour now is rich people telling poor people that other rich people are their problem.”

When I first meet the Labour candidate Paul Williams, he accuses me of door-stepping him at his campaign office in West Hartlepool. I say I didn’t even recognise him, as he is wearing a (very clean) mask, and he calms down. He is obviously decent, but he can’t be what they need him to be: a man who sounds like them and voted for Brexit. He offers the weary contradiction of a proud apology. He speaks like a heavily edited leaflet. Of Hartlepool’s Labour councillors who damaged the party’s reputation, he says: “there were some people [who] weren’t in it for the right reasons. They are no longer in the Labour Party. People are very disappointed that Labour didn’t deliver. Labour didn’t live up to what people hoped they would do locally in the council.” He is more honest than the Tory Party, whose campaign literature obliquely blames de-industrialisation and austerity on the Labour Party.

“People are willing to at least listen to us again [since Corbyn],” he says. “There were people who were just angry at Labour. Now people are no longer angry. It’s almost as though they want to be able to vote Labour but they’re just not quite sure”. He says the 2019 voters will stay with Labour, and there are new Labour voters too: “But what we don’t know is if it’s enough.”

He emphasises Tory cuts: tells me that after the A&E closed in 2011 there was for six years no overnight doctor in Hartlepool. He organised a consortium to open an urgent care facility: “I worked the first shifts there myself and I was leader of that organisation.” He sounds stung. “That’s the contrast between somebody who has a positive history of doing great things for people in Hartlepool versus a farmer from Thirsk [Jill Mortimer] who has almost no connection to this town.”

Ralph Ward-Jackson has an obvious connection: his great-great-great-uncle — another Ralph Ward-Jackson — was the founder of West Hartlepool. His statue is by the station, looking lonely and aggrieved. Ward-Jackson meets me in the park named for this ancestor, and we drive to the marina to look for the 30-foot inflatable Boris Johnson raised by The Wombles of Hartlepool, a sort of mood-lifting collective (it has been removed) and eat chips. Most candidates do this for authenticity, though only the Northern Independence Party has a graphic of a whippet: “Taking inspiration from our shared history of communal solidarity we, like the whippet, shall run to freedom”. (They are not yet registered with the Electoral Commission, so their candidate, Thelma Walker, is running as an independent, and she is polling at 6%. Splitters.)

Ward-Jackson wanted to represent Hartlepool at the General Election in 2019 for the Conservatives, and the local party, he says, agreed. They sent him to Conservative Central Office where, “I end up in front of this ice-queen in who clearly didn’t know where Hartlepool was. And then she said in a po-faced way: ‘Why would anyone want to go there?’”

He wasn’t selected and he wouldn’t have stood as an independent, he says, if they had selected a decent candidate. Instead, “they produced this I’m sure very nice lady from north Yorkshire. This is how Central Office think. They’ll think, ‘oh let’s get a map, who have we approved within this area? Oh yes, there’s her, that’s great’”. I think Ward-Jackson is too kind. I think an algorithm chose her; even so, he was enraged at the insult to Hartlepool.

“It’s 35 miles away,” he says, “Hartlepool and Thirsk. One is a tough industrial slash post-industrial town and the other is a sleepy agricultural town with no real challenges or issues of a different sort anyway. They’ve got nothing in common” — unless you work in Central Office.

Ward-Jackson says it is a “non-doorstep issue” (I’m not sure I agree) but it obsesses him: “I hate the political class and I want to give them a bloody nose if only by frightening them a bit: [for choosing] another slick, packaged professional politician. They want biddable people.” Ward-Jackson, a former Tory, and Bettney, a Social Democrat, are of the same mind on this, and this is comforting: at least the anti-Tory contingent agree on something. Hilton Dawson, formerly a Labour MP, now standing for the pro-devolution North East Party, thinks so too.

“The only way of making progress in the local state and the regional state is to join the party,” he says, “and the party serves itself.” I believe him: he was a Labour member for 35 years and an MP for eight. “And the people within the party serve themselves and without opposition they lose completely all perspective on what they’re supposed to be doing. They don’t respond to criticism and complaint, they don’t respond to good ideas. They simply try to close down any debate”.

In this race to centralisation and control, people take what choice they have left: “I don’t see a vote for Brexit as being some great anti-European thing or something about UK independence particularly. I see it much more as people just saying, ‘We want to change, we want something different, we want to be in control of this agenda’”. That is an argument for devolution; he says it is the only route to accountability.

I sense in Hartlepool, under the ennui and the exhaustion, a dynamism trying to break free: 16 candidates, many of whom are competent, and have good ideas, is proof enough. Labour has, like Citizen Kane, talked about the people as if it owned them for too long.

Some voters look to the Conservatives as “fresh eyes” with “fresh air” and praise the vaccine roll-out. (Here, as ever, women take pleasure in Boris Johnson’s idiocies. Men do not.) They may be poor, but their lives were saved; and perhaps their cynicism is so acute Hartlepool will turn blue; perhaps the Tories will meet it with tribute. But they should not cackle too recklessly if Labour stumbles here: their own reckoning with the North will surely come.