Quite apart from some serious implications for modern British politics, this also has to be one of the most bizarre contests of modern times. When it comes to by-elections, next Thursday’s battle for Hartlepool really is a collector’s item.
Here we have no fewer than 16 candidates, including three former Labour MPs, a convicted sex offender, a kinsman of the man who built the town and an ex-soldier driving round in a tank under the banner of the Social Democrats. All of a sudden, the Monster Raving Loony Party candidate (whose manifesto includes hiring the Hartlepool Arms’ darts team to speed up vaccinations) doesn’t look quite so loony after all.
Not that there is much mirth in either the Tory or Labour camps. For this battle is pivotal.
This picture shows Dr Paul Williams, the Labour Party candidate, on the stump in the town
Conservative candidate Jill Mortimer (centre) with colleagues Edwards Timpson MP (L) and Neville Lishman (R) canvassing in the towns Own Manor district
If the Tories win this former Labour citadel, then Boris Johnson will have defied the laws of political gravity. Mid-term Tory governments in crisis are supposed to lose safe seats, not steal them off the Opposition. Sir Keir Starmer, meanwhile, will face a civil war. Given that Labour won this seat twice under the last leader, Jeremy Corbyn’s followers will argue that it is now time to lurch back to the Left.
And the omens? I do not meet anyone who raises the issue of ‘Tory sleaze’ on the doorstep. However, there are two things which most people bring up right away: Jabs and Brexit. And both play well for the Conservatives.
Much as it may baffle the Westminster wonks, Brexit is still a live issue here in a town that voted 70:30 to leave the European Union. Just as the miners’ strike still haunts families and friendships in some mining towns, so the Brexit debate – and who stood where in it – will be part of local folklore for years to come. The fact that the Labour candidate, ex-MP Dr Paul Williams, was a keen Remainer, is a real issue.
In the town centre, most people don’t want to stop and talk politics. Of those who do, the ones slagging off Labour outnumber Tory-haters by roughly two to one.
The most surreal moment is when I stop one who turns out to have been a Labour councillor for 12 years, until he became an independent in 2016. ‘For the first time in my life, I’ll be voting Tory,’ he says. ‘We need a change. If it’s a disaster, I’ll switch back to Labour but for now, it’s Tory.’
Right now, the Conservatives are the bookies’ favourites and ahead in the polls. Don’t write off Labour just yet. At the last election, of course, this part of the North East saw the Tories bring the famous ‘red wall’ crashing down in so many safe Labour seats. Yet in Hartlepool, Labour held on. Clearly, they were greatly helped by a Brexit Party vote of 10,600, just behind the Tories on 11,800, which let Labour slip through the middle on 15,400.
Yet reports of Labour’s death in Hartlepool have been proved wrong time and again. Even when the former MP, Peter Mandelson, was twice forced to resign as a minister and then chucked in the seat to join the European Commission, Labour held on every time.
And this town has always had an individualist streak. It famously elected a football mascot in a monkey costume as executive mayor in 2002. It was no joke, either. Stuart Drummond – widely regarded as an excellent choice – was the first executive mayor in Britain to be elected three times in a row.
The current council, meanwhile, is run by a coalition of independents. In other words, Hartlepool is a one-off.
Throw in the fact that there are four elections here next week – the by-election, council elections, the election for the Mayor of Teesside and the vote for the police thingummy – and there are an awful lot of leaflets flying through Hartlepudlian letterboxes right now. The parliamentary seat, though, is a two-horse race this time around.
Voters in Hartlepool will have their say on the town’s new MP at the approaching by-election to be held on 6th May. Labour have held the seat since 1964 but the Tories are confident that they can win and add the constituency to their list of red wall victories from the last general election
Labour’s Paul Williams was elected as MP for Stockton South in 2017 and then got the boot two years later.
A chatty 48-year-old doctor with an OBE and a passing resemblance to Matt LeBlanc (of Friends and Top Gear fame), he should be an asset on the doorsteps. He works on the Covid frontline in Hartlepool and his wife, Vicky, a senior nurse, is in charge of a Covid jab centre.
Even so, many ask why Hartlepool should have a reject from Stockton. And a problem for Labour is that so much potential ammunition against the Tories can be fired straight back.
Take ‘Tory sleaze’. This by-election is only happening because former Labour MP, Mike Hill, resigned amid accusations of sexual harassment (which he denies).
Nor can Dr Williams bash the Tories for moving the local A&E unit to Stockton since it was Labour which first drew up the plans. The Tories claim that Dr Williams endorsed the scheme. ‘It’s just not true,’ he says. ‘I’ve been working to bring services back to this town.’
He is up against the Conservatives’ Jill Mortimer, a Tory councillor from rural North Yorkshire who ran a B&B, farmed 50 cattle and, since raising her three children, has retrained as a barrister.
Mrs Mortimer has her responses well-rehearsed – Sofagate? ‘People want to talk about jobs’, etc – and seems to go down well on the doorsteps. Former ‘staunch socialist’ and dock worker Robert Smith, 74, tells her she already has his postal vote. ‘We need a change. Look at the job Ben Houchen has done,’ he says.
Ben Houchen is the star name hereabouts. He is the 34-year-old Tory ‘metro’ mayor of the whole Teesside region, credited with rescuing Teesside airport and creating a new ‘freeport’ corporation. Even diehard Labour fans tell me that they’ll be voting for Houchen as mayor.
Clearly, the Tory strategy is that this is their by-election to lose so they are barely talking to the media. The only high-profile visit has been that of the Prime Minister who came up to kick a football around with poor Mrs Mortimer at Hartlepool United. Super League it was not.
However, there are plenty of other candidates. Outside the shopping centre, I spy the flag of the SDP, the one-time centre-Left hope of British politics. ‘We want to focus on the things that bind us, not all this woke stuff,’ says former regimental sergeant major David Bettney, a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, who has been campaigning in a tank.
The Lib Dems are here in the form of local teacher Andy Hagon. His pro-EU message has cost him his deposit twice before but he says that’s in the past. Not so, says one John Prescott, standing for Reform UK (the Brexit Party as was). ‘There are a lot of Brexiteers who once voted Labour, who’ll never vote Tory. They’re our low-hanging fruit,’ he says.
I meet Hilton Dawson, a Blair-era Labour MP who threw it in after the Iraq War. Now he’s standing for the North East Party which wants to give the region the same powers as Scotland and Wales. ‘We won’t take as long as the Scots to get there,’ he laughs.
Another ex-Labour MP, Thelma Walker, is standing for the ‘Northern Independence Party’ – which, intriguingly, is based in Brighton.
The ‘monkey’ element in this election is a man with instant name recognition. Modern Hartlepool was created by Victorian industrialist Ralph Ward Jackson, whose docks and railways brought great prosperity. His statue stands opposite Wetherspoon’s Ward Jackson pub, just round the corner from the Jackson Arms and famous Ward Jackson Park. His great-great-great nephew, Ralph Ward-Jackson, 50, is now standing as the ‘independent voice for Hartlepool’. A London-based businessman – once featured in Tatler’s ‘top ten’ of ‘most eligible bachelors’ – he says he has ‘reconnected’ with the town. ‘Hartlepool has been badly treated by the main parties,’ he says.
There is even a convicted sex offender standing as an independent, though one look at social media suggests that this is a publicity stunt. Either way, it seems best not to name him.
So what on earth will happen next week? I ask the leader of the council, Shane Moore, 38, a former tanker driver standing for re-election as an independent. He says he’ll gladly work with whoever wins, providing they back his plans for jobs and council houses. ‘Tory sleaze isn’t cutting through here. People are starting to feel optimistic again after their vaccines,’ he says. And Labour? ‘A lot of people don’t see Labour as the party of the working class any more. That void has been filled by Boris.’
Maybe the PM should squeeze in one more kickabout.