Dozens of Labour MPs and shadow ministers have poured into Hartlepool before the town’s crucial byelection, as Keir Starmer’s party tries desperately to defend its traditional northern stronghold from the Tories.
With numbers of activists restricted by Covid-19 measures, a string of high-profile Labour names, led by Starmer himself, have visited – a sign of the party’s determination to prevent what would be seen as a damaging reversal if the Conservatives were to seize it on 6 May.
Campaigning was suspended over the weekend following the death of Prince Philip, but MPs returning from the north-east said it had been like a convention of the parliamentary party in the town. “Activists can only come on day visits,” said one MP. “Normally we have a big presence of activists here. Instead it is the MPs who are able to come and stay overnight in hotels or B&Bs, which are open for essential workers.”
Labour has held the town since 1964 but its share of the vote has dropped in recent years to leave a majority of just over 3,500. The Brexit party won 26% of the vote at the last election, which many Labour insiders believe allowed their party to retain the seat from the Tories. However, with Brexit down the agenda, a senior Labour source said Labour would do “very well” to hold on this time.
While many have regarded the contest as a test for Labour in the so-called “red wall” post-industrial seats it lost to the Tories, the town’s economy has evolved. Though jobs in industry and manufacturing still exist in Hartlepool, more than half of its people now work in white-collar jobs, as managers, directors, in professional services, admin and skilled trades.
Despite assumptions of being a struggling town, it was “far from” being in decline, said Laura Turner, an optometrist who moved from North Yorkshire six years ago, and who was among those queuing at a drive-through Costa Coffee. “Down south, I reckon people think of us as a deprived, old-fashioned town but we’re not really,” she said. “Sure, we’ve got poverty, but Hartlepool isn’t run-down compared to a lot of places.”
The Tories are the bookies’ favourite to win on 6 May, and the odds are shortening, but few residents seemed to know which way it would go. Separate polls have come out in favour of Labour and the Tories, and both parties are vulnerable to having their vote split – the Conservatives by Reform UK, formerly the Brexit party, and Labour by the newly formed Northern Independence party, which targets Labour voters.
“I’m a strategic voter,” said HR worker Jess outside the cafe. “But it could go any way. You never know with Hartlepool, anything could happen. We voted in a monkey, after all.”
That was not a figure of speech – in 2002, residents elected Hartlepool United FC mascot H’Angus the Monkey as mayor, with Stuart Drummond, the man inside the costume, becoming popular enough to serve three terms. The anti-establishment sentiment, and the closeness of the polls, is what makes the Labour Leave constituency so hard to predict.
One of the 69.5% of Hartlepudlians to vote for Brexit in 2016 was Tom Hind, a retired emergency ambulance technician who now volunteers at the marina restoring Watchful, a boat that took part in the Dunkirk evacuation. “We’re old enough to remember what we’ve lost by joining the EU,” he said. “For example, Hartlepool depended a lot on the coal industry and the steelworks and that’s all gone now.”
He was unsure which way he would vote – he did not think Boris Johnson had done a bad job but he found the government’s 1% pay rise for nurses insulting. “I’m weighing up the options,” he said. “You see, some people here would vote for the worst person in the world as long as they were Labour.”
Dr Paul Williams, Labour’s candidate in the byelection, said last week he believed victory was still possible: “Obviously you prefer to be ahead in polls but actually it showed that of the 502 people they interviewed, 200 hadn’t yet decided [who to vote for] and that’s what is chiming with us on the doorstep.”
Alongside Labour, the Conservatives, the Lib Dems and the Greens, there are five independents (including former Labour MP Thelma Walker, who is aligned to the Northern Independence party), and Nick Delves, aka The Incredible Flying Brick, who has stood for election 11 times for the Monster Raving Loony party.
“There are so many independents this time,” said Kelsey Patton, a customer service manager. “I think this is because Hartlepool is more willing to take a chance on an independent than anywhere else. We’re a very unpredictable town and these are very unpredictable times.”