My old school has gone now. They've built a few rows of neat little white-clad, fresh-brick bungalows – just right for pensioners – on the spot where my political consciousness had its first aberrant blossoming.
We were aged 10, as I recall, and the father of a girl in my class at St Francis Primary School in Middlesbrough was standing for parliament in a by-election. In the little schoolyard, where the bungalows' precise little parking plots now stand, our playtime activities all began the same way. You would get two or three friends, twine your arms round one another's shoulders and tour the playground chanting: "All join on if you want to play Cowboys and Indians". Political correctness had not then been conceived. The tough boys got to be the Cowboys; the weedy ones had to be the Indians.
But in May 1962 the chant became a different one. "All join on if you vote for Mr Connelly" as, in our political awakening, we sang:
Vote, vote, vote for Mr Conn-lee
Chuck old Labour out the door
If he goes to tell his wife
We will stab him with a knife
And he won't go voting any more.
I should not have been singing that. Bernard Connelly was a Conservative – and we were a Labour family, though I did not know it then. My Grandad had been a union man, down the steelworks, before he ended up in the local sanatorium with lung disease. He had been a leading light of the penny-a-week co-operative which was the forerunner of the National Health Service. My Dad had stepped a rung up the social ladder because he was a teacher, the first professional in the family, but he still voted Labour. "It's the party of the working man," my uncles would say.
But there was ambivalence towards Bernard Connelly. He had been a naval officer in the war and afterwards had read economics at Cambridge before becoming marketing manager at Head Wrightson, the local engineering company which made the blast furnaces for the steelworks. He was a classic Conservative. But he was a Catholic, as we were. In the Sixties Catholics still felt like a beleaguered minority, much as Muslims do today. A Catholic Conservative was enough to seriously muddle my elders' badges of tribal identity. Some of these Labour men actually voted Conservative, on the quiet, just the once, like.
They may do so again this May. The steelworks, which once provided jobs for 30,000 local men, closed a few weeks ago, throwing the final 1,600 men employed in steel-making on Teesside onto the dole. It was not good news for a town two-thirds of which is classed as deprived in national indices. Not for nothing is Middlesbrough twinned with Dunkirk, as one waggish outsider put it, though the truth is that a quarter of the ships involved in the notorious Second World War evacuation were from Teesport. I had been in the town the day the Corus steel plant finally closed. A man the same age as me was interviewed on the local TV news. What would he do now, the interviewer asked. "There's no jobs," he replied. "I suppose I'll just watch the telly for the rest of my life."
My old school may have been too small to survive the endless reconfigurations of the education system over the years but the church community from which it grew is thriving. Though it was a Wednesday, the midday Mass was well-attended. Around 70 people, mainly retired, filled the pews at St Francis and then moved across to the church's social club for a Soup and Roll lunch.
"The main thing is the economy," said Raymond Sullivan, who before he retired was a researcher at British Steel. "Brown has got the experience." Sharing his table for the choice of Carrot & Coriander, Stilton and Broccoli or Ham Broth, was Dave Sargeant, who had spent 41 years in design on the ammonia production line at that other great mainstay of Teesside's great manufacturing past, ICI. He took the opposite view. "I've no confidence in the Tories," he said, "but I couldn't do another five years of Labour."
At the tables all round there was plenty of political steam being let off – on the government's failure to save Corus, MPs' expenses, the bail-out of the banks, the NHS, the lack of support for our troops in Afghan-istan, the Human Rights Act, and even – 25 years on – Margaret Thatcher and the miners' strike. "I've always been Labour," said Susan Smith, now in her 70s after a life spent as a cleaner. "They fought for the miners". Memories are long in Middlesbrough.
The question was: would any of the righteous indignation alter the way people voted?
Most people conceded they would default, when the day came, to old ways. "I guess a lot of my thinking is habitual," said a retired manager and traditional Tory, Brian Gibbon. "I'm concerned about David Cameron's inexperience but something massive would have to happen to stop me voting Conservative." Dave Sargeant shrugged his agreement: "When push comes to shove I suppose I'll vote as I always have."
But a significant minority said something notably different. "I've always voted Labour, though I did switch to Thatcher when I was having trouble with the unions," said Jim Kelly, a retired factory manager. He is worried that a lot of the money that Labour put into the NHS was wasted "on things like the doctors' pay rise". He's outraged that his daughter, who served in the Army, had to ring home to ask for food parcels to be sent to her in Kosovo. And he's disturbed by New Labour's confrontational attitudes to the church and the judiciary. "I'll vote Conservative. A change is needed."
His wife, Rose, a former nurse, who previously voted Labour and was a fan of Tony Blair – and appears to be the only person in the town who was in favour of invading Iraq – now says she is a floating voter. "I feel that David Cameron and George Osborne are a couple of Eton boys playing with the economy but the welfare state is turning into a nanny state and making people dependent on benefits. I suppose in the end I'll have to decide what is the least bad option."
But a considerable number at the soup lunch – around a quarter of those I interviewed – had made a decision not to vote at all. "There isn't enough difference between the parties," said Natasha Peiris, an IT consultant. "I wouldn't cross the doorstep to vote," said a Carrot & Coriander spooner at the next table. "They're all a pack of crooks." This was not a rhetorical flourish, she insisted, but a firm resolution not to legitimise a discredited political caste by voting for any of them.
Wouldn't personal loyalty to the incumbent MP Sir Stuart Bell, who has been in the job for 27 years, count for anything? "Quite the opposite," said the Labour stalwart Raymond Sullivan. "He doesn't hold surgeries in the town. We never see him."
"I don't know who he is," said Susan Smith. "Nor does anyone else," quipped another woman at her table.
"He's a non-entity as far as local people are concerned," said Brian Gibbon. "The invisible man," said Rose Kelly. "I've never seen him in the flesh in my entire life," said Bernard Marron, a retired chiro-podist, adding, "mind, I'm only 73".
The degree of personal contempt for the MP which I encountered in my two days back in the town, was more widespread than I have ever come across in any other constituency. But would it be, with a his customary massive majority, a decisive factor? "Probably not," said Raymond Sullivan. "They might not like the guy but most of them won't vote Conservative."
A low turn-out seems in prospect. Perhaps voters at the other end of the age spectrum might be more enthusiastic, I mused, as I drove to the town's new mecca of contemporary art, mima – as the trendily middlesbrough institute of modern art calls itself. There were certainly plenty of young people around but not much by way of increased political engagement.
A group of first year Art & Design students from Middlesbrough College were milling around in the all-glass atrium. "The Government should have saved the steel industry and they should do something about petrol prices," said Michael Webster, who, at 17, is still a year off voting but was the most forthcoming of the group. "And they should make more places available at university." But Lauren Stevenson, who at 18 will be eligible to vote for the first time, was more typical in saying that she probably would not bother. "I'm not really into politics," she said. "My grandfather was, he was a councillor." For which party? "I'm not sure." What policies would she like the next government to adopt. " I don't know really". Did she prefer Gordon Brown – or David Cameron? "Who's he?" Would she vote? "I'm not really motivated."
Down Albert Road in Café Pronto another 18-year-old was slightly more enthusiastic. "I'll vote," said Abbi Wilkinson. "It'll be exciting, the first time?" So who for? "Dunno. Same as my mum, I suppose."
Her mother was sitting next to her, and her mother next to her. "I don't know who to vote for, with all this expenses business," said Kathleen Wilkinson. "I've been against Gordon Brown for ages but that David Cameron is just two sugars sweet. We need some strong characters like Ann Widdecombe or Mo Mowlam."
Might she decide on policy? "Labour have put a lot of money into the NHS. I know because I've worked in the NHS for 25 years," she said. "But it's just meant five managers to every two nurses, and everyone spending all their time fiddling targets. Labour have done nothing for this area except provide us with a load of bloody sculptures."
Tees Valley Regeneration has recently announced plans to create the biggest art project in the world, starting in the heart of Middlesbrough with a 110 x 50m high £2.7m piece by the sculptor Anish Kapoor.
So she might vote Tory then? "Maybe, but the Conservatives sent the four people in our house four separate letters – all saying the same thing – in four envelopes, with four stamps. What a waste of money."
"I don't think I'll vote at all, for the first time in my life," said Abbi's grandma, Freda Gibson. "I've got no faith in any of them."
"I'm not voting," said the black-clad 20-something lad who had served the coffee, wiping down the counter as closing time approached, and fetching out a guitar case ready for this progress to somewhere he would rather be.". There's no point, nothing ever changes. I don't care who gets in so long as it isn't the BNP."
Not much chance of that, said Kathleen Wilkinson. "It's quite multicultural, Middlesbrough. All the taxi drivers are Asians and they're are very nice, and reliable. You feel safe in the car with them." Indeed, it seems immigration is less of an issue in the town than in any other constituency I've visited. "We have no black-on-black gang violence here," one local policeman told me, "and no Islamic extremism. Asians are well-accepted here now."
The only anti-immigrant remarks I heard were not disguised anti-black remarks but were directed against eastern Europeans. "A lot of them are work-shy benefits-scroungers," a man in a pub casually remarked, "but the Asians are hardworking members of the community."
So what do Middlesbrough's political class make of all this? Down at the Conservative Club in Orchard Road I met up with an old friend, John Tate – the only one of my close circle to have returned to the Boro after university. He works in the legal department at the town council now.
Over a pint of Worthington, I indulged in a middle-aged lament about the conspicuous apathy off the town's youngsters and recalled the mock election we had had at school. "Yes, but in those days the parties had distinct policies," he said. "Now there's not a huge difference between them."
It was a frank admission for a stalwart of the Conservative club, as was his father before him. But my old friend's candour did not stop there. "The closure of Corus has generated huge resentment here. Everyone has said 'If they can save the banks why can't they save the steelworks?' In my view they should have let one of the big banks fail. But no-one thinks a Conservative government would have acted differently. There's general feeling that this town has been cast off – ever since the early Thatcher years."
Would that translate into votes? "Only a bit. Both parties are standing on a programme of cuts. Both are trying to sell themselves on competence – saying they can run the country best. People are suspicious of David Cameron and George Osborne has not made much of an impression. Their policy of raising the threshold on inheritance tax to £1m isn't a vote-winner round here. Indeed voters in most constituencies won't benefit; the average national house price is £160,000. "It'll be a closer election than many people think. The longer the campaign goes on the harder it'll get for the Conservatives who are running out of steam already. And the NHS is reasonably good round here; we even have NHS dentists in this town. Labour gets credit for that. But people don't think much of Brown or Cameron on the economy. Round here people still have the old-fashioned view that we can't survive as a nation by just selling things to one another. Someone has to make something."
Manufacturing was the mainstay of the Middlesbrough economy in the past. We were brought up on stories of how Gladstone had described Middlesbrough as "an infant Hercules in England's enterprise". As schoolboys we were proud of the fact that many of the world's greatest structures – like the Sydney Harbour Bridge – had 'Made in Middlesbrough' boldly stamped upon them. Erimus (we shall be) was the town's motto but today there is an air of fatalism around as if many people believe the Latin tag should be declined not in the future tense but in the imperfect, eramus (we were). Over the road in the bar of the Middlesbrough Little Theatre club they have no truck with such counsels of despair. Andy McDonald is at a table with Barry Coppinger, a Labour councillor and member of the council's executive committee. Andy is the younger brother of another old friend whom I once dragooned to play keyboards for a punk band in which I played in a more gilded era. He is now a solicitor and the chair of Middlesbrough Labour Party's local government committee.
The two men are robust in their defence of Labour's record. "Barry, who used to work for British Steel, drove the three local MPs up to see Gordon Brown at his constituency home," Andy said. "And European Global Adjustment Fund money offered to Corus to keep the steel works open," he added, pointing out that world demand for steel is expected to have risen to 2008 levels by the end of the year which would have seen the Indian-owned steel firm in line to post a profit of more than $500m (£325m) in 2010/11. "But they turned it down."
The problem for Labour, they feel, is that people locally are more down-beat than the facts warrant. "Gordon Brown was the right man to have at the helm in the global financial crisis," said Barry Coppinger. "If he hadn't intervened the entire ATM Link system would have gone down and there would have been queues outside every bank like there were outside Northern Rock."
Though nearly 100,000 manufacturing jobs have gone since 1971 they have been replaced by the same amount in service industries. "Labour have spent a lot of money in this area," said Andy McDonald. "There are 12 Sure Start nursery schemes in Middlesbrough alone. And there's a lot of positive thinking going on still."
The Chemical and manufacturing sectors are well co-ordinated on Teesside – still the largest integrated manufacturing complex in the UK – encompassing as well as steel, petrochemicals, oil and gas and the port.
"New industries in biomass, carbon capture and advance engineering will be able to use the infrastructure of the old industries and many of the skills from the steel industry will be transferable with some retraining," said Barry. "Two-thirds of Middlesbrough's wards may be classed as deprived in national indices but there is tremendous community spirit and there's huge potential for things to get better."
Whether they can get that across to the voters is another matter. In one sense, it's of little consequence. The Labour majority at the last election was 12,567. It would take an unthinkable number of defections to overturn that. John Tate shrugs at the idea. "The Tories can win without taking places like this," he said.
On the way home I called at McCoy's restaurant at the Tontine. Barbara McCoy was there – 50 years back, Barbara Connelly, whose dad stood unsuccessfully for the Middlesbrough West seat in 1962.
She is remarkably unchanged. Her father Bernard is now aged nearly 88. "The NHS is the big issue for me," she said. "It has been great. So have the carers Mum and Dad have in every day. I couldn't fault it. They are determined to do everything they can to allow older people to remain in their own homes as long as is possible, and that's brilliant."
So would it be safe in the hands of David Cameron, with his pledge to preserve health services from cuts? "I think it would," Barbara said. "I don't feel things would change under the Tories."
The economy is the other big issue for her. Business is up and down, even for a place like McCoys which is a former Egon Ronay Restaurant of the Year. Business entertaining is down but private customers are still out and about in half-decent numbers. "A lot of the people we get in here are Labour people," she said. "But no-one has a good word to say about Gordon Brown. And a lot of the Conservatives don't think that David Cameron is up to the job. A lot of them say they are not going to vote and I think they mean it."
If they do, then expect a low poll in the Labour heartlands. As I left I fell into conversation with a couple of women enjoying the exemplary fish pie in McCoy's bistro.
It might end up in a hung parliament, said one, "which wouldn't be a bad thing." Her companion harrumphed: "So long as they hang the lot of them!"
Middlesbrough: Result in 2005
Labour Stuart Bell, 18,562, 57.8 per cent
Liberal Democrat Joe Michna, 5,995, 18.7 per cent
Conservative Caroline Flynn-Macleod, 5,263, 16.4 per cent
BNP Ron Armes, 819, 2.5 per cent
UKIP Michael Landers, 768, 2.4 per cent
Ind Jackie Elder, 503, 1.6 per centReuse content