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“Boris doesn’t care about the north”: Can Brexit define the Labour town of Hartlepool?

The Brexit Party and Conservatives have their eye on the northeast coastal constituency, but its residents are not to be pigeonholed.

Silhouetted against a sky of glaring sunshine, seagulls circle and shriek above Hartlepool’s marina. It hosts a row of restaurants and bars, overlooked by modern housing developments: the shiny result of a patchy regeneration project from the Peter Mandelson era. The New Labour grandee 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.

The main sign of Hartlepool’s history as a shipbuilding town are the masts of a solitary ship moored 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.

Its docks could no longer rely on the coal export trade as the coalfields in east Durham declined. In turn, the import business of timber needed by the pits also drew to a close.

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With his hand in his pocket and a fist clenched, Nigel Farage looks out earnestly at readers from the frontpage of Hartlepool Life. The northeast coastal town’s weekly paper carries a four-page wraparound advertisement from the Brexit Party. The following issue reveals a similar spread: a four-page Brexit Party centrefold.

All this splurging of printers’ ink is further proof that Hartlepool – held by Labour for 55 years – is the Brexit Party’s top target constituency. Its candidate here is party chairman Richard Tice: the most significant media performer it has after Farage. Hartlepool was also the place where Farage chose to make his announcement in November that he wouldn’t run candidates in 317 Conservative-held seats. The chairman of the local Conservative Association had accused Farage of having “effectively handed” Hartlepool over to Labour by contesting the seat, and that the two parties would “take each other out”.

Having opted by 69.9 per cent to Leave in the EU referendum, the most decisive vote in the region, Hartlepool has come to be viewed as the northeast’s Brexit capital. Even before the referendum, Farage’s previous party Ukip had its sights set on the town, surging to second place in the 2015 election, although its support collapsed in 2017.

Since September, Hartlepool Borough Council has been run by a Tory/Brexit Party coalition: the first time in its history to be controlled by a party other than Labour.

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Yet that advert smothering Hartlepool Life only tells one part of the story. The “first ever Brexit Party council”, for example, wasn’t voted as such. The Brexit Party didn’t run in May’s local elections, after all. It’s actually the result of ten councillors – eight independents, one Ukipper and one of the Veterans’ and People’s Party – defecting to the Brexit Party after being elected to the council. The local Labour opposition calls it a “chameleon council”.

Brexit doesn’t appear to be the biggest issue in town as polling day draws closer.

There is widespread anger at the decline of Hartlepool hospital over the past decade; it lost its consultant-led maternity care in 2008, A&E department in 2011, and intensive care unit in 2013. Another local flashpoint is the old train stock, and limited, expensive services – with only two carriages on Hartlepool to Newcastle routes that become particularly cramped over the weekend.

At a hustings in a chilly church hall on Tuesday night, there are no questions on Brexit – other than one regarding concerns over NHS staff shortages.

Also conspicuously absent from the wooden chairs lined up in a row in front of the mighty church organ are the Brexit Party and Conservative candidates.

According to the organiser of the hustings, all six candidates running in the town were invited and given a “wide range of days” to choose from. “Since then, the Brexit Party and Conservative candidate were unable to be in town to be with us. I did wonder should we have ice blocks?” she jokes.

Audience questions were submitted before they were informed of these absences, and many supplement their points with anger at the no-shows. (I asked both the Brexit Party and Tory candidate Stefan Houghton why they didn’t attend, but did not receive an answer. I also asked them for interviews but was told Tice wasn’t available, and didn’t hear back from Houghton.)

Instead, there are tough questions to the candidates on pensions, climate change, transport, and austerity. 

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.)

The most pro-Brexit voice in the room is former Labour deputy council leader, and the only candidate standing in this election for the Socialist Labour Party, Kevin Cranney. “I voted to Leave, and Labour is now a Remain party,” he tells the audience – shortly before the Lib Dem candidate declares himself the only representative of a “Remain party”.

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“Some people would say this is the ‘Brexit general election’, like the Brexit Party, the national and international media,” says Mike Hill, the Labour MP who’s represented Hartlepool since 2017, and lived here since 1999. “They’re bringing that discussion to the table… There is a dark cloud over Hartlepool because of interest in the national scenario.”

We meet at the local Labour HQ where he is sheltering in his fleece, taking a break from doorknocking. He drinks tea out of a mug bearing a cartoon monkey – a symbol of the town since Hartlepool residents were 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. In May 2002, the town even elected its football club’s mascot, a man in a monkey suit, as its mayor. He’d run on a pledge of free daily bananas for all Hartlepool schoolchildren, which he never delivered.

“We have France24 coming again, they came in 2017!” Hill points to a white board propped up on a desk, detailing all the different media organisations due to visit. He also notes reporters from a host of other countries, including all the way from Canada, filming in the town.

Amid the usual maps, jars of rubber bands, post-its and bottles of pop for volunteers that litter every campaign office, its place in the global media spotlight seems strange.

“They’re bringing this narrative [about Brexit] to the town – it’s an unnecessary focus on Hartlepool. But people won’t give in to false pressure, they aren’t easily fooled,” insists Hill.

“We have some of the most deprived wards in the country but we are strong, proud people who at the grassroots are getting together to make the community stronger, the town is full of proud communities, and friendly, warm people,” Hill says. “We need a government that can do the journey with them.”

There are seven foodbanks in Hartlepool, for which there should be “no reason on this earth”, laments Hill. He also notes the lack of employment opportunities “after the steelworks shut”, and “successive governments putting more money into larger towns and cities”, leaving people feeling “left behind”.

Yet he believes Labour’s “Green Industrial Revolution” will be able to revive manufacturing and skilled jobs here, using the old fossil fuel infrastructure and climate apprenticeships at Hartlepool’s further education college, which offers the largest number of apprenticeships in the Tees Valley.

Health services are a greater challenge, with people putting “blame on the Labour party” and its time running the council for what’s happened to the hospital over the years. “I understand,” says Hill, who says he has “fought to keep the maternity unit” and “campaigned to stop land adjacent to the hospital” being built on since he was elected.

The town was recently stung by a Channel 4 series called Skint Britain, which aimed to cover the effect of the Universal Credit benefits system being piloted in the town. When I visited while it was airing in April, people widely derided it as exploiting Hartlepool – depicting it in a negative light as just another deprived coastal town.

“Anybody who tries to or thinks they can come in and fool people and take them for a ride is out of touch with the town,” Hill says.

I get the impression he’s talking more about Farage’s attempted coup than TV cameras?

“The Brexit Party think they’ve got a good chance of winning,” he says. “But the Conservatives remain our challenge in Hartlepool. They are the real opposition.”

He decries candidates like Tice, a multimillionaire property developer whose address on the Hartlepool nominations form is listed as in Cities of London and Westminster, as “distant from the fabric and make-up of Hartlepool”.

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Residents I speak to seem wise to politicians and journalists swooping in and trying to define them.

“Hartlepool gets its knocks but it does a good job and it’s a nice town,” says Paul Barton, a 61-year-old delivery driver for Argos. He wrote a letter of complaint to Channel 4 about Skint Britain, angered by the “poverty porn” portrayal.

“It annoyed me,” he says, despairing about the “north-south divide” narrative pigeonholing places like Hartlepool. He voted Remain and usually votes Conservative, and feels Johnson “did a good job as a mayor in London”, but he’s “not sure if he’s really the person he comes across as, the blundering idiot type”, he adds.

“I’m a Labour fan, I’ve always voted for Labour and I will again,” says one pensioner out shopping in the Middleton Grange shopping centre, who prefers not to give his details. Brexit doesn’t affect the way he votes; Labour tradition is more important to him. “I suppose I’m old-fashioned, sorry,” he smiles.

“Boris is for the rich,” says a 70-year-old woman I speak to, who voted Remain and usually backs the Lib Dems. She prefers not to give her name.

Undecided on how to vote this time round, she is highly suspicious of the Prime Minister. “I don’t trust anyone and I haven’t made my mind up yet, but Boris is for the rich, and I like some of what Corbyn says but I’m not sure where the money will come from, he promises too much. It’s a nightmare this year. We’re between the devil and the deep blue sea!”

She laughs: “I’d vote for Boris if I won the lottery, because he’s for the rich. But I don’t think he cares about the north.”

Her partner, a 70-year-old retired economics teacher, thinks Corbyn is “a bit strange” but likes the idea of nationalising rail and utilities – “that’ll be good, because they all rip you off, those companies”, he says.

Their main concern, however, is high council tax – a sore issue in the town. The council decided to increase it last year. “We’ve just paid it, £157 a month – that’s more than London. Maybe we should go and move there!”

A 15-year-old boy accompanied by his grandmother is “interested in what both the Labour party and Conservatives” can do for the town, but condemns the Lib Dems as “neither liberal nor democratic”, making no mention of the Brexit Party.

“Labour’s pledge is the most that’s happened in a year for us, but they’re not in yet, are they?” says one of Hartlepool’s 5,000 WASPI women – those born in the 1950s who lost out on state pension payments because of the accelerated rise in women’s retirement age under the coalition government. Labour has promised to reimburse them.

“We were disappointed it wasn’t mentioned at Labour conference, but the Conservatives are just not interested.”

It’s clear Hartlepool voters refuse to be defined at this point in the general election campaign. Even the Labour incumbent Mike Hill admits there are many “undecided”.

One thing he does have sorted, however, is his response to dislike of Jeremy Corbyn on the doorstep. He simply tells them that he doesn’t like him either…because of one particular pledge. “He wants to ban people keeping monkeys! Here it is,” he laughs, flicking through the manifesto. “‘… ban the keeping of primates as pets’. For a guy who represents monkey town, that’s just a step too far!”

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.