Hartlepool ponders a change after half a century voting Labour

19 Apr

It is an old adage that even a monkey wearing a Labour rosette would be elected in the north-east. But it may be time to consign that cliche to the political dustbin. In Hartlepool, at least, even the town’s famous mascot, H’Angus the Monkey, is considering voting Conservative.

“The vast majority of the north-east is Labour so maybe it’s time for a change. I’ll probably go blue,” said Michael Evans, Hartlepool United’s mascot, who cheerfully posed for pictures in his monkey costume in the town on Wednesday. He is the successor to Stuart Drummond, who went on to enjoy a 10-year term as Hartlepool’s mayor after being elected dressed as the mascot.

Evans, 32, is something of an anomaly in the north-east: a remain voter in a town that voted overwhelmingly to quit the EU, and a likely Tory voter in a constituency that has been a Labour stronghold since 1964. Though perhaps not for much longer.

Hartlepool’s MP, Iain Wright, announced on Wednesday he would not seek re-election to the seat he has held since 2004, taking victory with smaller majorities each time. The ascendance of Ukip saw his majority reduced to 3,024 votes in 2015, when he beat the Ukip candidate and wrestler Phillip Broughton.

“Hartlepool is a very winnable seat but there are others we’re quite strong in: Redcar, Blyth, Tynemouth,” said Steve Turner, Ukip’s north-east regional chairman.

Street in Hartlepool



Street in Hartlepool, where MP Iain Wright has declared he will not stand for re-election. Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian

Turner predicted that Labour would lose six or seven of its north-east seats in the snap general election called by Theresa May for 8 June, faced with a “triple threat” of Ukip, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, who he said could mop up the student-heavy remain vote in Durham in a campaign likely to be dominated by Brexit. Such a result would be catastrophic for Labour, whose north-east heartland remained intact after the 2015 election.

On the streets of Hartlepool, which voted 69.6% to leave the EU, there was little enthusiasm for any party. “With Brexit, it’s a lot of people going back on their word,” said Callum Griffiths, 24, a tattoo artist, who said he was not interested in politics until the EU referendum. He voted to remain but does not know who he will vote for on 8 June.

Callum Griffiths



Callum Griffiths: ‘With Brexit, it’s a lot of people going back on their word.’ Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian

Outside Poundland in the Middleton Grange shopping centre, Barbara Wiffen, 66, said she had been a Labour voter for decades but switched to the Tories 20 years ago. Her vote, like millions more across Britain, is up for grabs this time around – but she said it would not be going to Ukip. “Farage has done them in, Ukip,” she said. “He’s the one who promised all the money for the NHS and then after he said we didn’t get that right. People are against him now because his promises came to nothing.”

Nursing an afternoon pint in the Clarendon pub, a short walk from the town’s pretty marina, a group of four lifelong Labour voters gave a pessimistic prognosis. “The Labour party is finished here,” said one, who did not want to give his name. “I voted Labour all my life till the last election, then I voted Ukip. There’s only one person who can run this country and that’s Theresa May. Corbyn is hopeless: he’d send our troops out in rowing boats.”

Another of the group, John Wilson, 68, said he would reluctantly vote Labour but recognised the appeal of Ukip.

In the quiet market town of Guisborough, 40 minutes down the A19, Brexit was not top of the agenda. Rather, it was the familiar lament of an area forgotten by Westminster and the main political parties.

“I think everyone’s had enough because we don’t get anything. This area, nobody cares about. Not one iota,” said Bill Clarke, an independent councillor on both the town and borough council.

The town at the northern tip of the North York Moors is the heart of the mainly rural Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland constituency, held by Labour since its inception in 1997. The local MP, Tom Blenkinsop, declared within 10 minutes of May’s snap general election announcement that he would not seek re-election. His majority of 2,248 is vulnerable to the Conservatives.

Even Guisborough’s staunchest Labour supporters have the jitters. “If you want honesty, fairness and truth vote Jeremy Corbyn,” said Neil Watson, 59. He blamed the parliamentary Labour party for “committing political suicide” with a shadow cabinet revolt, and accused the media of ignoring Corbyn’s hard work.

Labour supporter Neil Watson in Guisborough



Labour supporter Neil Watson in Guisborough. Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian

Watson said the Conservatives would win a “substantial majority” unless Corbyn could mobilise his supporters. Even then, he said, Labour was “up against it” in the constituency.

Major local issues including council budget cuts, NHS pressures and the closure two years ago of the SSI steel plant in nearby Redcar – at a cost of 1,700 jobs – will all feature heavily in the seven-week campaign, said Clarke. For others, such as Steve Simpson, the snap general is simply an opportunity to urge the government to continue its path to Brexit.

“I’m going to vote Tory purely because I voted to leave,” said Simpson, a council worker and former Labour voter. “The people in government should abide by the decision the British people made – we voted to leave. There’s some Labour MPs trying to block us leaving. If the vote had gone the other way would they have blocked that too?”

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