“PETER MANDELSON is widely hated across Hartlepool,” says John Bloom, the Respect coalition candidate for the forthcoming by-election in Hartlepool. “People feel he came here, used the place, then scuttled off when something better came up.”
The date for the Hartlepool by-election hasn’t been set yet, but it is expected sometime in October. It was triggered by the departure of Blairite MP Peter Mandelson to become a European commissioner.
The Respect campaign in Hartlepool has hit the ground running. Respect activists have opened up a campaign headquarters in the town centre and leafleted the whole constituency.
John is well known in the town for campaigning against New Labour’s plans to close down Hartlepool’s hospital. This issue has crystallised the widespread bitterness towards Labour, he says.
Jill Russell is organising John’s campaign. She says the response so far has been very positive: “People are sick of the mainstream parties—they’ve had enough. We just need to reach enough people.”
The town has a history of reacting against Labour’s arrogance—notably when an independent candidate in a monkey suit was elected mayor in 2002.
“Hartlepool’s a funny old place—it’s more like a big village than a small town,” says John. “Nothing is absolutely given here.”
Respect is winning support in the town.
Derek Malcolm is a 46 year old GMB union shop steward who works at a car component factory near Hartlepool.
He joined Respect last week after dropping in on the campaign headquarters and talking to activists.
He told Socialist Worker, “I used to be Labour years and years ago. I became disenchanted—it all seemed to be about Tupperware parties to raise funds. That was 20 years ago—I could see the writing on the wall.”
The defeat of the miners’ strike and disillusionment with Labour led to Derek withdrawing from activism. “I just lay idle, read Socialist Worker when I had the chance, or the Morning Star,” he says.
New Labour’s refusal to repeal Margaret Thatcher’s trade union laws was the final nail in the coffin, he says: “I’ve never been able to vote anything but Labour. But now I’d rather not vote than vote Labour.”
Derek’s anger came to a head in 2002 when New Labour decided that Hartlepool should have a directly elected mayor.
He helped organise the election campaign for his friend Stuart Drummond, better known as H’Angus the Monkey, the town’s football mascot.
“We thought it was a damn good pisstake,” says Derek.
The campaign tapped a wellspring of anger at Labour’s arrogance in the town.
Stuart ended up beating all the major parties and landing the job as mayor.
Derek found out about Respect from a leaflet left on his windscreen. It caught his attention and he decided to find out more.
“I’ve found a group of individuals who matched my thoughts,” he says. “That’s never happened to me before. It’s unusual at 46 to be excited again about politics.”
Things have changed since the mines were closed down. Derek says, “The colliery kept the fabric of society together. It created a sense of family, a reliance on other people, teamwork. Now that’s all gone—it’s very fragmented now.
“There used to be 3,000 people working in the colliery. Now it’s all call centres and dog grooming parlours.”
The war in Iraq was a turning point. Derek recalls leaving anti-war leaflets lying around at work last year. The reaction from his fellow workers was cautious interest.
“People would read them and understand them, but they wouldn’t open up,” he says. Nevertheless, it was a start:
“You can step beyond local issues. When you talk to someone in a small group, they can be a bit more open. It can take a long time, but people do have an understanding far beyond people’s perceptions.”
Respect has given Derek hope that something can be done to change the world. “There will be a change—we can chip away at the establishment,” he says.
“There must be other people out there who’ve given up politics, given up on socialism. If we can get together, we could fill a big room, we could build out, then fill a bigger room.
“It’s not the ‘done thing’ to put yourself up for criticism. But it gets to the point where you have to stand up and be counted.”
‘Everything is wrong with Labour’
MAUREEN HALL works for Hartlepool’s probation service. She is a Labour Party member, but has decided not to renew her membership. Socialist Worker asked her why she had lost faith in Labour.
‘Where do you want me to start?
There was the war in Iraq. More lately there’s been the threat of removing health care for asylum seekers, which I think is disgraceful.
I voted Respect for the European elections—as did a lot of other Labour members in Teeside. I’ve also gone leafleting for Respect.
I think the key issue for Respect is increasing people’s confidence that they can actually win—that Respect isn’t just a gimmick or a one-issue party.
It’s about proving they are serious contenders.’
To get involved in the campaign phone 07815 452 756.