One recent morning I visited Hartlepool to cover the by-election. What I found there made me angry. This town has not been served well by politics, whether its Conservative government, its Labour MP who resigned in March after allegations of sexual harassment were made against him, or a council – until recently Labour-held – dogged by bullying allegations and with a reputation for ineffectiveness. This is one of the ten most deprived local authorities in England: the people of Hartlepool have to travel out of town to access critical care after services were cut at the local hospital, and the magistrates’ court has been closed.
You would think that both of the main parties would be fighting hard to win over the mythologised “Red Wall” voters in this crucial by-election. Yet Labour seems to think that pinning a red rosette on a doctor is all it takes to hold on to the seat, regardless of whether the candidate, Paul Williams, faced an open selection process (he didn’t), scrubbed his social media of offensive content before standing (he didn’t), or played a part in the closure of that hospital critical care unit (he did).
Labour is insisting that Brexit is “over”, and is bravely testing that theory in the heavily pro-Leave seat of Hartlepool by standing a candidate who was ousted by his last pro-Leave constituency after two years in parliament opposing Brexit. Local residents are not thrilled to be offered a neighbouring seat’s unwanted MP. As one put it: “If he wasn’t good enough for Stockton, why is he good enough for Hartlepool?”
A “local” difficulty
The Conservative candidate is not much better, and is being kept away from the media after a series of blunders. Hartlepool residents are unforgiving about the way Jill Mortimer has been sold to them as “local”. She is a councillor in Thirsk, more than 30 miles away, two local women informed me with a smirk; it’s the sort of place that would seem “local” to Hartlepool if you were sitting in Conservative headquarters in London. One independent candidate has joked that when Mortimer first arrived in Hartlepool to campaign, she looked as though she had “landed on Mars”.
People in Hartlepool have a sense of humour about the calibre of the Labour and Conservative candidates. But there is a sting to it. There may be 14 other candidates on the ballot, but voters there know it’s a two-horse race, and that it comes down to a choice between two parties that haven’t demonstrated terribly much respect for them. The town continues to be badly treated by our political system, and its voters patronised. None of the talk about the “Red Wall” has fixed that.
Pity the men
I was reminded recently of a piece in the Sunday Times Magazine from last year asking why men are unhappy, by which the author meant why London-dwelling, middle-aged, rich men are unhappy. Their biggest worry was money. “They are all treading the same thin line between outgoings and incomings,” the author lamented. “None of them has much in reserve.”
The piece stayed with me, a fascinatingly tone-deaf and yet honest account of the worries of people who don’t inspire much sympathy. I was pleased to see the Sunday Times run a follow-up case study over the long weekend, detailing the money woes of a London-dwelling, middle-aged man called Boris Johnson.
[See also: Labour is too weak to win and too strong to die]
The luxury of living
There was something in that account of Johnson’s money problems to annoy almost everyone. My own gripe was that the Prime Minister lives rent-free in central London, but claims to have money troubles. I find London rent excruciating, and the cost of living in the capital has been on my mind as we come out of lockdown. But I am channelling the spirit of the American author Fran Lebowitz into my approach to city living. She tells the story of meeting a young person who dreamed of living in New York but feared it would be too expensive. “No one can afford to live in New York,” she shrugged. “Yet eight million people do.”
This article appears in the 05 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, If not now, when?