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Local elections 2019: Labour-run Hartlepool attempts a coup against austerity

In the coastal community that once elected a monkey as its mayor, an uprising rumbles in the ranks of the local governing party.

Paddy Brown makes the best cup of coffee in Hartlepool. Using a metal contraption in his kitchen usually reserved for camper van holidays, he hand-presses the beans after putting them through a grinder and serves me the result in a “Super Dad” mug. It’s very tasty.

The 58-year-old former butcher has been a Labour councillor in this north-east coastal town, where he was born and bred, for less than a year.

Before then, he hadn’t been involved in politics. After leaving school at 16, he worked at a butcher’s shop (“I liked working with animals!” he quips). In his twenties, he opened a butcher’s and bakery, and later moved into the shop-fitting trade, running his own business carrying out work for major supermarkets across the country.

His four daughters now in their twenties, he still lives in the town where he was raised by his father, a bricklayer who died when Paddy was 13, and his mother, who was a hotel waitress. He still remembers the day she was promoted – to “female head waiter” as back in the day there was no such thing as “head waitress”. When the Queen visited Hull, a port city south of Hartlepool, she was chosen to travel down to serve the food.

Brown only joined the Labour Party three years ago. The former prime minister David Cameron sparked his interest in politics, he says, when he noticed the cuts. “I looked a little bit more at what was happening around me, how people were being treated, and I thought the compassion had gone.”

A tall figure in a white shirt and black suit jacket and trousers, Brown proudly clips his red tie in place with a pin bearing the Hartlepool monkey. It’s a nod to the time when Hartlepool residents are said to have captured and hanged a monkey during the Napoleonic Wars. Having never before seen a Frenchman, they assumed the animal was a French spy, or so the story goes.

They are still nicknamed “monkey hangers” today. And that’s not the only reputation that sticks. There’s one topic of conversation uniting people in Hartlepool when I visit: a Channel 4 documentary series set here called Skint BritainIt’s the talk of the town, and the source of much irritation.

From the pub quiz at a cheese and craft beer bar in the town centre to chats over bankers – pints resembling Mr Whippy ice creams, with huge heads hanging over the rim – at a local pub, Hartlepool locals feel the programme portrayed their home in a bad light.

While the documentary depicts the plight of those at the sharp-end of the government’s reformed welfare system, Universal Credit, it also feeds into a long-held perception of Hartlepool as simply another deprived coastal community.

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An old shipbuilding town with a proud maritime heritage, the main evidence of that long-lost industry is a solitary ship, moored as a visitor attraction on the historic quay. The Napoleonic War-era HMS Trincomalee is Britain’s oldest warship still afloat.

After the shipyard closed in the early Sixties, 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 needed by the pits, also drew to a close.

Instead, there’s now a row of restaurants and bars along the marina, overlooked by modern housing developments. It’s a patchy Nineties regeneration project from the era of Peter Mandelson, the New Labour grandee who was MP here for 12 years. It was during that time that he famously mistook mushy peas for guacamole in a local fish and chip shop.

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The loss of industry, coupled with attempts at service-led modernisation, place Hartlepool in that category of towns currently beloved of Westminster: the “left behind”.

It’s true, the figures don’t paint a happy picture. Austerity hit Hartlepool hard, with spending levels slashed by 33 per cent from 2010-17 – the 24th biggest cut 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 UK local authorities with the highest unemployment rate in 2017 – half of these, 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. (This is partly down to a change in who was categorised as out-of-work, since the government’s notorious new welfare system, Universal Credit, was piloted here in 2016.)

“We’ve been unfortunate enough to top some unfortunate charts – some of the most deprived wards in the country, early death rates, and child poverty. We topped the unemployment chart until recently, and are still in the top quartile,” admits Mike Hill, the Labour MP for Hartlepool since 2017, when we meet in the further education college, which offers the most apprenticeships in the Tees Valley.

“But this is a vibrant community,” he adds. “Our history goes back years and years. The sense of community is thriving. As part of the Tees Valley, we’re looking to bring more jobs and improve the economy, and there is a hidden workforce of people desperate to work, ready and willing to be skilled up.”

But you don’t see much of the beautiful stretches of coast in Skint Britain. Nor do you see 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 college.

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This is the context in which local elections in Hartlepool are playing out: a town teetering between frustration and pride.

Eleven council seats – a third of the council – will be contested here on 2 May, with one candidate elected per ward.

Councils like Hartlepool that elect “by thirds” don’t usually have a change in control over the course of a single election. And Labour has an overall majority, with 19 councillors out of 33. (There are also seven independents and a handful of others, including three Tories and one Ukipper.) 

Indeed, since the first council elections here in 1973, Labour is the only party to have controlled the council.

Yet Hartlepool is infamous for one unexpected outcome, in a local election 17 years ago. In May 2002, it elected a monkey as its mayor. 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.

Much to the annoyance of Peter Mandelson, 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 bananas.

One resident I spoke to for a report on Brexit earlier this year warned that if Hartlepool isn’t given “the Brexit they promised us”, then something similar could happen again: “In Hartlepool, we had this mayor – the monkey – because nobody wanted Labour and Tories, and it’ll be a bigger version of that… A right-wing party will get in and cause havoc.”

Most people I meet in the town, where 69.9 per cent of voters opted for Leave, decry Brexit’s delay and uncertainty – and some would rather leave with no deal from the EU.

Yet along with the disdain I hear from locals for Jeremy Corbyn’s Brexit stance, I discover the Labour Party has more to worry about within its own ranks.

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Insiders expect a Labour coup in the local elections – and not a Corbynite one.

The Hartlepool Fabians – 40-odd prospective councillors, sitting councillors, trade unionists and activists – set up by members of the local Labour Party in early 2018, are opposing the current Labour council leadership.

They are part of the majority of Hartlepool Constituency Labour Party delegates – described by one councillor, since resigned, as “power crazy individuals”– who want to see a change of leadership on the Labour-controlled council. They unsuccessfully attempted to oust Christopher Akers-Belcher, leader of the council’s Labour Group since 2012, in a vote of no confidence last November.

They have, however, deselected four sitting councillors, including the mayor, and expect their faction to dominate the council after the local elections in May.

Why? Because Labour activists are picking up on dissatisfaction on the doorstep, about money being spent unwisely, and the impact of austerity.

Unprompted, people in Hartlepool do mention the council’s upkeep of the town.

“Hartlepool is a Labour council, but they let the hospital go and they don’t stick up for people whatsoever,” says 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.

“They’re in it for the money, they’re in it for themselves,” he says.

His main concern is the decline of public services. He’s disappointed in both the Conservative government and Labour council, 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.”

Keers is damning of the council. He has voted Labour in the past, but as a Leave voter, he feels Jeremy Corbyn has taken the party “downhill”. He still believes Labour will hold on come the local elections, however. “People vote Labour here for the sake of it, because their mams and dads did.”

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Paddy Brown is hoping to lead this new Labour vanguard, apparently poised to freshen up the town.

“I would like to see Hartlepool going in a new direction, and I strongly believe that that should be under new leadership,” he tells me.

“I think the leadership that the council is under at the moment has been running in the wrong direction for some years now, and I think I would have the backing of an awful lot of the town when I say that, I knock on doors regular, I wander round the town regular, and it’s very common for people to complain about the way our town is heading and the way it’s being led.”

The main concern is a decline of public services, and the lack of investment in the town. Residents also complain of high council tax, with councillors signing off a 3.9 per cent increase last year.

Hartlepool’s Fabians and the council itself are coming up with policies in the style of the Preston Model, a community wealth building policy.

The idea, successfully pursued by Preston City Council, is to keep more money flowing into an area through local procurement, socially productive use of land and property, plural economic ownership, and other measures.

When I visit, the Hartlepool Fabians are championing their own version, the “Hartlepool Plan”, during a public event at the college. This includes using private “anchor institutions” like the offshore engineering company Heerema, Camerons Brewery and electronics manufacturer Stadium Group PLC to welcome local contractors and staff, and incentivising more worker-owned firms with favourable business rates.

The number of unoccupied commercial and industrial properties in the town (1,727 and 430, respectively) should be used for the community, they argue, and Hartlepool could trade off its “heritage and identity” to attract entrepreneurs. “Low rents, cheap costs of living, the inherent benefits of coastal life: all could be well-marketed to attract a new breed of skilled professional.”

We are catered by a nano brewery called Tooth & Claw, a collective of brewers who work at Camerons Brewery, funded by their employer to make and market their own local, innovative batches. It’s one example of a community wealth building-style set-up.

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This is just the beginning. Paddy Brown and his associates hope to implement their plan if they take over the council on 2 May.

“It’s residents taking back control, you know?” says Aileen Kendon, who runs a residents association and is on her third attempt at winning a seat. “A lot needs to be done in Hartlepool, and I’m very much about seeing a new direction, investment, and we need to see a change in leadership before that to drive it forward.”

Her fellow candidate, Ann Johnson, a support worker for children with special education needs, left her home town of Hartlepool in 1979 to join the Navy at 17, and only returned five years ago. “I was quite surprised to see the reasons why I left from a 17-year-old’s perspective were still very evident today – unemployment, lack of hope. I still feel it, it’s sad,” she says, now in her late fifties. “I want to give a little bit of pride in the town, and to make a difference.”

Their MP, Mike Hill, believes the result of these local elections could be “part of the rebirth of forgotten coastal communities”, and an “organic way forward” in a post-Brexit, austerity-ravaged landscape.

“Hartlepool has certainly put a lot of their own effort into really getting the bit between their teeth, and that’s more than maybe other areas have done just in terms of effort. They’re well on their way,” says Neil McInroy, of the Centre for Local Economic Strategies think tank, which has been developing local wealth building models for 15 years and is working in Hartlepool as well as 40 other places across the UK.

He says the impact of nine years of austerity has been a “shot in the arm” for plans like these in deprived towns.

For Paddy Brown’s part, he now drinks at independent pubs instead of the Wetherspoon’s, and tries to spend 10 per cent of his weekly food shop at local grocers.

“I’m not saying people must spend every penny of their money in a corner shop or in the local pub,” he says. “I’m just saying, make a start.”

I requested to meet with Hartlepool Borough Council’s leadership during my visit, but they did not respond. A spokesperson told me: “The Council and Hartlepool’s Health and Wellbeing Board is working with the Centre for Local Economic Strategies to further develop ways in which we can use public sector spending to invest in our local economy.”

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.