Seventeen years ago, Hartlepool was ahead of the populist curve. In May 2002, the coastal town in the north east of England elected a monkey as its mayor. Well, sort of.
The football club’s mascot, a man in a monkey suit, ran on a pledge of free daily bananas for all Hartlepool schoolchildren, and won.
Why a monkey? In a historic tale embraced by local sports teams, Hartlepool’s residents – still nicknamed “monkey hangers” today – are said to have captured and hanged a monkey during the Napoleonic Wars. The story goes that they assumed the animal was a French spy, having never before seen a Frenchman.
Much to the annoyance of Peter Mandelson, the New Labour grandee who was then MP for the town, H’Angus The Monkey was a surprise beneficiary of his government’s flagship policy for local directly-elected mayors – and went on to win again by a landslide in 2005.
The children never received those free bananas.
Ancient history in Hartlepool since the mayor ditched his costume and was eventually replaced six years ago by a new leadership, the prospects of a populist uprising are a hot topic once again.
Former Ukip leader and ardent Brexiteer Nigel Farage announced yesterday that Hartlepool will be a stop on the first day of his nationwide “Brexit march”, arriving in London on the day Britain is due to leave the European Union, 29 March.
The march will begin in Sunderland – a city nearby whose early Brexit verdict came to define the EU referendum results night. It’s home to the Nissan plant, which, as Britain’s biggest car factory, employs more than 7,000 workers – jobs that hang in the balance amid Brexit uncertainty and a recent decision to backtrack on UK production plans.
Delivering the most decisive vote for Brexit in this region, with a 69.6 per cent majority, Hartlepool has been characterised ever since as the Brexit capital of the north east.
Hartlepool is an old shipbuilding town with a proud maritime heritage. Britain’s oldest warship still afloat, the Napoleonic-era HMS Trincomalee, is moored on the Historic Quay, across the water from a row of restaurants and bars along the marina – a Mandelson-era regeneration project that modernised the docks in the Nineties.
Its shipyard closed down in the early Sixties, and the town’s subsequent core steelworks and engineering industries were devastated by the recession in the Seventies and deindustrialisation in the Eighties. Hartlepool’s docks could no longer rely on the coal export trade as the coalfields in east Durham declined, and the import business of timber to the pits also drew to a close.
Locals’ views on Brexit vary widely from that national picture, and they are also trying to shake the image of desperate poverty depicted on Channel 4’s current series set in the town, Skint Britain.
You don’t see much of the beautiful stretches of coast on that documentary. Nor the central and pedestrianised Church Square, which houses a Victorian church converted into a contemporary art gallery, sandwiched between the prestigious Northern School of Art, and the Hartlepool College of Further Education, which offers the most apprenticeships in the Tees Valley.
From students to pensioners, there is disquiet here about what comes next for the town. A tumultuous past week in Westminster saw the government prepared to delay Brexit, and the Labour party narrowing its options to backing a second referendum.
Leaving without a deal would be worst for the north east than anywhere else in the UK, according to a report by the Confederation of British Industry, shrinking its economy by 10.5 per cent in 15 years. The Newcastle Chronicle calculated in 2016 that the region receives twice as much EU funding per head (£187 since 2007) than the national average in England of £82. And local MPs have warned that the area would be hit hardest if Britain stops trading with the EU, with 58 per cent of goods exports sold in EU countries.
“If we don’t get the Brexit they promised us, there’ll be an uprising,” warns William Keers, a 67-year-old painter and decorator by trade who owned his own insulation firm before retiring. His black baseball cap is pulled low against the mist as he walks his King Charles cavalier, Chester, along the waterfront. He fears a surge in hard-right support if Brexit is seen to be betrayed.
“In Hartlepool, we had this mayor – the monkey – because nobody wanted Labour and Tories, and it’ll be a bigger version of that,” he fears. “A right-wing party will get in and cause havoc.”
Keers’ main concern is the decline of public services. He’s disappointed in both the Conservative government and Labour council here, citing cuts – particularly the closure of Hartlepool hospital’s emergency unit in 2011 – as the reason. This was a “body blow” to the town, he says.
“Who would’ve thought there’d be foodbanks in Hartlepool? It’s not on,” he adds, shaking his head. He was born here, and has noticed a rise in poverty over the past few years. “We used to have work here – the shipyards, the steelworks, the coalmines – OK, Hartlepool people didn’t work in the collieries but they brought work here.”
Austerity hit Hartlepool hard, with spending levels slashed by 33 per cent from 2010-17 – the 24th highest in the country – and central government funding expected to fall by 45 per cent by 2020.
The number of children in poverty here has increased over the last few years, and was just under 35 per cent last year (the national average is 30 per cent). Hartlepool was one of the top 30 poorest towns in England and Wales in 2016, according to Office for National Statistics figures, and was in the country’s 10 per cent most-deprived local authorities in 2015.
It was one of ten local authorities in the UK with the highest unemployment rate in 2017 – half of which, like Hartlepool, were coastal communities – and ranked highest nationwide for unemployment benefit claims last June, at over three times the national average at the time. (Yet this was partly down to a change in how people were counted as out-of-work, since the government’s notorious new welfare system, Universal Credit, was piloted here in 2016.)
“Hartlepool is a Labour council, but they let the hospital go and they don’t stick up for people whatsoever,” says Keers. “They’re in it for the money, they’re in it for themselves.”
On the other side of the marina, a young couple is sitting outside a café, sipping cappuccinos and finishing off their cake. They both grew up here and are bringing up their two children, six and 11, here too.
“It’s a lovely place to live – it has things other towns don’t have,” says 32-year-old Damon Douglas, who’s an electrician. “Around the marina it’s improved a lot, the parks are maintained well, cinemas, bowling, a variety of shops.”
Yet they have both struggled to get doctor’s appointments recently, saying they now have to wait two or three weeks, and they worry about other impacts of government cuts. “It’s the knock-on effect [on] people with jobs, the construction industry, the economy hits everything,” says Douglas. “There are not enough policeman on the road and crime’s going up on a regular basis. Drugs are quite bad in this town.”
A recent spike in crime here is ascribed to police cuts, the reporting of police cuts (late last year, the BBC revealed only ten officers cover the 90,000-population area), and the new benefits system.
“Universal Credit has hit this town hard,” says Douglas’ partner, Laura Benvin, who is training to be an occupational therapist.
Both voted to leave – partly, Benvin tells me, because she feels immigrants are putting “a strain” on the NHS, which she finds is a “kick in the teeth for the taxpayer”. She’s voted Conservative and her partner has voted Ukip in the past. Hartlepool’s migrant population is low – with a net migration figure of 153 last year – and the rate of migration here has been falling since the EU referendum.
But they are concerned about how Brexit’s going. “Where do they go from here?” asks Douglas. “I don’t think we’re going to get the deal, and if we have another referendum, it’ll have a big impact on democracy.”
He feels the “wrong people are in charge”, with Theresa May having campaigned to Remain, and prefers Farage. “Yes, there are scare tactics about leaving, but our country’s good enough to get ourselves out of it – it’s best for our country.”
In the town centre, outside the Middleton Grange shopping centre, this enthusiasm for Farage is echoed by Colin Riches, 60, who is out shopping. He has worked in factories, garages and heavy goods in Hartlepool all his life, and voted for Tony Blair’s Labour. He voted to leave, and feels “let down” by all politicians at the moment.
“Now Corbyn wants another referendum, but we want to get out like before,” he says. “Nigel Farage talks sense – let’s just stick to it. We should go out with nothing – don’t give them [the EU] anything.”
Mike Hill, the MP for Hartlepool since last year, is absorbing the impact of Labour’s most decisive Brexit step yet: backing a second referendum to avoid no deal or May’s deal.
Hill laments that “fake news” around Brexit has “confused the hell out of people”, insisting this move is nothing new (Labour policy, agreed last year, was to keep all options on the table).
“The People’s Vote has always been there,” he says. “It’s not a sudden change of emphasis, but people have picked up from newspaper headlines that is the case so they’ve blown it out of all proportion. For me, nothing’s changed. I still represent a Leave constituency. I follow the constituents’ line. I want to get that point across.”
Although he voted Remain (“and they all know it”), Hill is constantly “navigating the whips to fit with what this town wants – to leave”.
Private Labour Party polling in Hartlepool shows “little to no change” in public opinion relating to Brexit. Indeed, the national party’s latest shift is such an electoral threat to Labour in Hartlepool that on the week of the announcement, the local Labour Party passed an emergency motion to “formally advise the Member of Parliament for Hartlepool to vote against any legislation brought to the House of Commons by any party that would trigger a second referendum before the implementation of the 2016 referendum”.
Remain voters in the town are also nervous about the prospect of a second referendum. Stephen Harvey, 45, the “Ste” in Steron Locksmiths (Ron, his father, started the business in 1999) on the main thoroughfare of York Road, voted to Remain and felt the Brexit project was “miss-sold” to voters.
“I didn’t vote to leave because I thought it was a bit like when you’re a child and you pick up your ball and walk away,” he says. “But if it opens up markets and trade deals, I’m on the fence.
“I don’t agree with extending it, or another referendum and all that – we’ve said it, you’ve said it. It should’ve happened then, not now. It would be disappointing to have another referendum, but I wouldn’t be angry about it – I think a lot of people would [vote] Remain as it [Brexit] has had a lot of bad publicity.”
Harvey believes a better focus for Hartlepool would be creating opportunities for young people. He is advertising for a permanent, full-time position to train a new employee in what he calls “the secret art” of the locksmith, but admits such good quality jobs can be hard to come by.
“The culture’s changed,” he says. “The things we used to be good at aren’t there now – manufacturing, steelworks, we used to build stuff. But that’s not happening naturally – jobs have shifted… There were always jobs worth doing but there aren’t always those jobs available now.”
A new anti-Brexit poster has appeared on a billboard in recent days on Middleton Road, which runs from the marina into town. Members of the local Labour Party are showing photos of it to each other on their phones over bankers (pints pulled half at a time to ensure a huge head protruding over the rim – “you could stick a flake in it!”) on Thursday night at the Park Inn pub.
The poster’s causing such a stir because it is part of a guerrilla advertising campaign springing up around Britain by a pro-Remain group called Led By Donkeys – transcribing politicians’ most revealing statements about Brexit.
In tweet format, Hartlepool’s edition quotes Patrick Minford, the pro-Brexit economist beloved of leading Brexiteers in the Conservative Party:
“You are going to have to run it down (the car industry)… in the same way we ran down the coal and steel industries. These things happen.”