Hartlepool could soon have a Tory MP for the first time in almost 60 years—and no one seems surprised. A poll commissioned by the CWU union and published last week showed that the Tories could win a coming by‑election on 6 May.
If the result of the poll was repeated in the election, the Tories would win with 49 percent over Labour’s 42 percent.
It would be a huge boost to the Tories. They would tout a win as proof that Labour is losing its former strongholds because working class people want right wing parties.
And the Labour right would join in. They are getting their excuses in early—blaming it all on the legacy of former leader Jeremy Corbyn, and labelling the left’s criticism of Keir Starmer as sabotage. They are preparing the ground for a further shift to the right.
But many people in Hartlepool tell a different story.
Stop someone in the street, and they might well tell you that they don’t follow politics—but that they do think something needs to change.
No one seems surprised that the Tories might win. And everyone says Hartlepool has been run down and abandoned.
Michael is one of them. “It could be that the Tories will win,” he told Socialist Worker. “Things are changing around here in the north east. It used to be Labour for years. But I don’t think Labour has got a solid plan anymore.”
“They need to do something with the town itself,” he explained. “There’s a lot of empty shops and empty houses all over the place. I don’t think anybody has the town itself at heart.”
Darren, a student who grew up in Hartlepool, feels the same. “I probably wouldn’t be surprised if the Tories got in, but I’m not really a fan of them,” he said. “Nobody does much for the town. They need to invest in the town centre so it’s not just charity shops and Greggs.”
Jayne, a Labour Party member in Hartlepool, suggests that feeling is widespread.
“My partner who has lived here all his life says he struggles to see what the Labour councils have achieved,” she said.
“That there has been an ongoing deterioration in the town and the services over the last decade at least. He said that he has seen investment in local cities such as Sunderland and Newcastle but nothing in the towns of Teesside.
“I have a friend who has lived in the town the past decade,” she added. “She said she has also seen the sad decline of the town.”
Jayne said she thought local Labour politicians had struggled to find money to improve Hartlepool. Deeper rooted, longer-running problems of poverty and unemployment underlie the town’s decay. “The unemployment rate in Hartlepool is one of the highest in the country and that’s always been the case,” said Jayne.
In fact, at 8 percent, it is the highest in England. Hartlepool is consistently ranked as one of the most deprived areas in Britain. One third of children there live in poverty. It’s the legacy of a major assault on jobs more than 40 years ago.
Hartlepool could symbolise every town or region where jobs were smashed then replaced—if at all—with low paid work in business parks, warehouses and service industries.
In 1977 the state-owned British Steel—then under a Labour government—announced the closure of its steelworks in Hartlepool. At least 1,500 jobs went with it.
Bosses decided that an economic crisis meant steel workers had to pay. A constant squeeze on jobs, pay and living standards—overseen by Tory and Labour governments—meant life for people in Hartlepool never really got better after that.
“Go back to Thatcher,” Derek, who used to work at a nearby Nissan car plant, told Socialist Worker. “The loss of the steelworks, the loss of the coke works, and we still haven’t recovered. We still look backwards at that because there’s nothing to look forward to.
“My son lives in Nottingham. He abandoned the area, and I don’t blame him—and I think my 16 year old grandson will do the same.”
“There’s no future here,” Derek added, “Yes there are a few factories, there’s shops, there’s cinemas. But there isn’t any industry that’s going to stimulate people to come here.
“I drove past the new Amazon warehouse near Consett, in County Durham, the other day. It’s an amazing sized building—there’s a major road leading in from the A1 trunk road to support it. And what sort of jobs are there? You’re on low wages and you’re stressed because you’re under constant pressure.”
Amazon is just an example.
“There’s so many people on zero hours contracts, pitiful wages, poor terms and conditions,” said Derek.
“There’s nothing you can do here on one person’s salary. A full time wage is maybe £1,100, £1,200 a month. You show me a family that can live on that.”
These problems are different to the reasons that right win commentators and politicians will give for Labour’s falling support.
The Labour right thinks the party needs to talk about patriotism, “security” and support for the army and the police to win back working class people. But no one Socialist Worker spoke to in Hartlepool mentioned any of these things.
Instead they talked about jobs and investment, and said if the Tories get in it’s because they look like a change.
“Hartlepool could do with a change to be honest with you,” said one man who didn’t want to give his name. “A Conservative candidate could possibly do the town well.
“It’s always been a Labour town, Hartlepool. But the town wants jobs and a future for the kids. There’s no future because all the big industry has been shut down.”
“Labour has been stale for years and years,” said another. “They’ve promised us things but there’s nothing there. Hopefully, Conservatives, independents—we just need a change.”
This impression is helped by the fact that the Tees Valley Mayor, Ben Houchen—a Tory—has taken credit for a proposed new “freeport” in the area.
Freeports are places where bosses are allowed to employ people on worse conditions and pay less taxes. So in reality it will mean more low paid, insecure and dangerous jobs. But it’s being pushed—by the Tories and Labour—as the improvement Hartlepool needs.
That’s why Mehedi, an asylum seeker from Bangladesh, said if he was entitled to vote it would be for the Tories.
“When I first came here four years ago the experience I had was not good,” he said. “But the situation in Hartlepool now is getting better because the mayor now is Conservative. I see a lot of improvement when I see the news about the freeport.
“It looks like there may be a change coming and if I could vote I would vote for a Conservative.”
The flipside of all this is that, despite ten years of Tory government, Labour looks like the establishment. If people feel Labour has taken them for granted, they’re not wrong.
Labour lord Peter Mandelson wrote in the right wing Times newspaper that “Hartlepool is not a town that likes to be taken for granted.” He should know, having taken people’s support for granted when he was parachuted in as Hartlepool MP under Tony Blair’s government.
At the time, Mandelson said Labour could push through the agenda of privatisation and low wages started by Margaret Thatcher without losing support. Working class people “have nowhere else to go,” he said.
That impression was reinforced badly when Labour backed calls for a second European Union (EU) referendum ahead of the 2019 general election.
In Hartlepool, the vote to leave the EU was 70 percent—another vote for change. To many people, Labour’s turn towards overturning that vote was yet another example of politicians’ utter contempt for ordinary people.“The Labour Party is the establishment which has done nothing,” said Derek.
He’s a former Labour member and GMB union activist. But now he thinks he might even spoil his ballot paper rather than vote Labour.
If Labour could show some real opposition, things might be different, he said. “Labour are not an effective opposition at the moment. The last MP Mike Hill was not a vocal MP. He wasn’t manning the barricades at any point.
“The current candidate that’s been thrust on the Labour Party is pro-Europe. So what we’ve got now is a perfect storm that could result in Labour losing heavily and the only real alternative is the Conservative Party.”
The problem comes from the top, he added. “For some reason the current Conservative Party is held in high esteem. A lot of that is because Keir Starmer and his cronies just haven’t offered an effective argument against anything he’s done.
“There’s so many things they could get stuck into them about—but they’re not.”
Strong opposition to the Tories would be a start. Yet, as the right point out, with Corbyn as leader in 2019, Labour’s share of the vote in Hartlepool fell to 37 percent, with a majority of just 3,500.
They say this is more proof that people didn’t support the left wing promises in Labour’s manifesto.
In fact, Labour’s share of the vote has been falling in Hartlepool since 2001. The only time it has risen was in 2017—the year Corbyn’s Labour nearly beat the Tory government with a left wing manifesto and an insurgent campaign.
Polls in 2019 said Corbyn’s promises to tax the rich, and to nationalise industry, were still overwhelmingly popular. The CWU’s poll last week showed most people in Hartlepool back spending over austerity, support renationalising Royal Mail, and like the idea of free broadband.
Yet the election in 2019 was a disaster for Labour. Derek and Jayne rightly reply that Corbyn faced smears and attacks in the media, and from his own party, that no other politician did. That’s all true.
But after giving in over Brexit, fudging and toning down his radicalism, Corbyn failed to convince people that Labour would follow through on his promises. Labour’s trouble in Hartlepool is deeply rooted in attacks on working class people over decades.
Overcoming it means a major fight to undo all of that. It won’t come from Keir Starmer’s flag-waving Labour.
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