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"This by-election hasn’t got anything to do with the red brick or the red line or whatever you call it," sighs Mark Tilling, the headmaster of the Hartlepool’s High Tunstall College of Science. "Outside journalists come to do political stories here and they head straight for the dole centre and the Wetherspoons."
As we walk through his comprehensive school’s sparkly new building, he tuts that not one candidate has visited the school, even though it’s just had a multi-million pound refurbishment. Instead, Chancellor Rishi Sunak opted for a visit to the town’s snazzy new film studio development at the town’s Northern School of Art, dubbed the ‘Pinewood of the North’.
"Hartlepool’s problem is all the buzz about development is unfocused. The town lacks a single anchor - like the Nissan plant in nearby Sunderland. If a big employer moved in, the local school curriculums could be organised around specific technical skills," says Mr Tilling. "None of those standing seem to quite get it."
By-elections are notorious for exposing the gulf between Westminster and local world-views. Career politicians are parachuted into a place they have never visited. The London commentariat descend in their droves, determined to insert the day’s exotic location into some wider Westminster psychodrama.
But at this month’s Hartlepool by-election, the clash seems particularly bitter. There is frustration that neither of two main parties "get" Hartlepool. Disappointment is widespread that neither the Conservative candidate Jill Mortimer nor Labour’s Paul Williams are from Hartlepool.
Voters are impatient that "London obsessions" such as "Boris’s bleedin’ golden wallpaper" are distracting the conversation from the town’s important issues. Residents are furious about their being "carpet bombed" with expensive leaflets in the middle of an economically ruinous lockdown.
In short, the people of Hartlepool seem frustrated and bemused to be the latest centre of a furious turf war between the two main parties over former working-class strongholds. After whittling Labour’s majority to just 3,595 votes in the 2019 election, the Conservatives are fighting for every vote. Labour, meanwhile, is determined to cling on; after campaigning in the town just last week, Sir Keir Starmer will visit today again in a last-ditch effort to charm swing voters.
Tories coy about prospects
"We’ve got to be realistic, Labour has held this constituency for 57 years," says the Conservative Party’s co-chair Amanda Milling who has been out on the campaign trail. She adds that the pandemic has made campaigning more difficult.
Still they seem quietly hopeful that a backlash against Labour "taking the constituency for granted" is brewing, and that the Tory levelling up agenda is cutting through. "Hartlepudlians have noted what we are doing with the freeport in nearby Tees Valley for example, and they want to be part of it. We went door stepping the other day with the region’s mayor Ben Houchen, and a group of people ran from across the street to greet him."
The Tory camp also hopes that the Labour’s choice of candidate will prove fatal. Paul Williams, who voted Remain, has been engulfed in a string of controversies since announcing his candidacy - from an ‘inappropriate’ tweet using the vulgar term Milf, to revelations that he had a hand in cutting resources to the very hospital he has pledged to revive. The latter revelation has particularly damaged his standing among local Labour voters.
Glen Hughes, who runs the local campaign that has been fighting to restore Hartlepool’s A&E department, was "flabbergasted" by Paul Williams’ candidacy. "I am a socialist who voted Labour all my life. But when I saw pictures of him posing outside the hospital without mentioning the role he has played in its A&E’s closure, I thought: how could you?"
Still, Glen is voting for an independent candidate, rather than the Tory. "A lot of us are from socialist households. That’s not to say it’s been rammed down our throats, but you grow up with that sense that politics is about helping people. It’s hard to shed all that to vote blue. A lot of us will look at the independent candidates before the Conservative one."
It is a typical attitude among the town’s disillusioned Labour voters. Therein seems to lie the Tories’ main problem in Hartlepool. During the 2019 election, across the North East and the Midlands, anecdotes about Tory switchers were abundant. In Hartlepool, this is simply not the case. If a victory is coming, it may well be tight.
"If the Tories understand Hartlepool - the soul of this town and what it needs - it really hasn’t come across," says Mark Lloyd, who owns a fine jewellery business in the town centre. With his flowing hair, flowery shirt over his leather apron and single gleaming earring, he seems to epitomise the quirky grafting quality of Hartlepudlians that none of the candidates’ soundbites have managed to capture.
"What people don’t quite get is that this used to be a very rich place. There are still a lot of wealthy people, with links back to the days of industry. It’s a very proud little town." Over the whirring of metal in his workshop, he hollers that although the Tory’s establishment of a freeport in Hartlepool is to be welcomed, he’s not quite convinced that they know how to make the most of it, so it doesn’t turn into "just another good thing that could have been".
Lack of message
Aside from scepticism about the Tories’ business credentials, other speed bumps all along the journey are weakening Tory momentum. Locals seem underwhelmed by the choice of candidate, Jill Mortimer, a barrister from North Yorkshire who admits she has not "spent a lot of time" in the city. They have struggled to craft a single message that resonates on the doorstep like "Take Back Control".
While the Downing Street refurbishment scandal has failed to cut through, so has the Prime Minister’s vaccine triumph. Every voter I spoke with seemed utterly non-plussed by the idea it might give the Conservatives an edge. "People don’t see it as a particularly Tory triumph," says Hilton Dawson, a former Labour MP who is standing for the North East Party. "They tend to associate the rollout more with the NHS and they appreciate the local people doing the injections." Although he is no fan of the Labour Party, he ultimately believes they will hang on by talking up the NHS. "People raise eyebrows when Dr Williams turns up political events in scrubs, but why wouldn’t you?"
The Brexit Party’s failure to pump resources into a candidacy as they did with Richard Tice in the 2019 election could also help Starmer to hold on to many disillusioned voters. Although there are some impressive independent candidates standing, they are under resourced and fragmented.
"The Brexit Party missed a trick by being a one-party issue," says Adam Gaile, who owns Rosie’s pub on the marina. He has decided to stand as an independent in the wake of the catastrophic fallout from lockdowns. Many of his friends, from freelance wedding planners to recycling plant officials, have lost their jobs and some are now relying on food banks. He has pledged to give half of his MP’s wage to fund the latter if he wins, though has no resources for leaflets or door stepping.
In between conversation we sip coffee on his pub’s terrace, watching life go by on the sun-dappled the marina. As families graze on albondigas in the tapas bar, groups of girlfriends sip gin fizzes on rattan chairs outside a candyfloss-pink cocktail bar. It could be a scene from the Mediterranean if it wasn’t for the massive car park plonked in the middle, blocking the views of the boats. The council recently put in an offer to buy the land from private owners and turn it into an al fresco piazza perfect for long summer evenings and fish festivals. The bid failed. "It’s the story of Hartlepool, pure unfulfilled potential," says Adam.
His fellow independent candidate, Samantha Lee, who is similarly frustrated with Hartlepool’s lack of progress in recent years is a particularly niggling worry for the Tories. The well-connected PR entrepreneur seems to be hoovering up hundreds of crucial Tory votes, particularly among the town’s disillusioned small business owners, hammered by lockdown.
As we career along the coast in her lime green camper van (which friends have named Scooby Doo), she points furiously towards the 78-mile Dogger Bank wind farm being constructed in the North Sea.
"Why can’t our local company JDR provide the subsea cables for the project, like a Teeside factory has just been chosen to make the turbine blades?"
"We have an industrial estate with enterprise status that nobody did anything with. A council that makes window cleaners and cupcake makers fill out generic business plans so it can say it’s creating new businesses."
She laughs when I ask her if she’d have stood as the Tory candidate if she had been asked.
She also chuckles about banging on Victoria Derbyshire’s road van earlier this week; the BBC refused to put her in the lineup for a televised hustings because she wasn’t from one of the main parties. But then the smile turns wistful. "The problem is politics is the wrong way round. London comes here and tells us what the issues are. Surely we should be telling them."