The sea has always played a pivotal role in the fortunes of the people of Hartlepool. They grew in wealth as custodians of the gateway port for the coal fields of County Durham and later as a global centre in shipbuilding.
And the sea also delivered to the town its most celebrated fable – the Hartlepool monkey, washed ashore during the height of Napoleonic paranoia. It was tried and hanged by fishermen convinced it was a French spy.
The legend was appropriated to spectacular effect by Stuart Drummond, a former cruise ship waiter, who in 2002 stood for election as the town's first directly elected mayor, clad in the suit of the local football club's monkey mascot, known as H'Angus.
He won, but his success was lamented as the ultimate show of disdain to participatory democracy. Today, Mr Drummond is asking Hartlepool voters to return him for a third term.
If, as seems likely, they select him from among the 13 hopefuls vying for the £63,000-a-year position, it will send a signal to political parties that independents, at least in local politics, are here to stay. Mr Drummond spent most of yesterday looking after his three children and appeared relaxed despite the looming election which could see him out of work tomorrow.
The lack of local opinion polls, the massive field and the second preference voting system – as well as the febrile atmosphere infecting politics at present – mean that no one can accurately predict who will prevail when the votes are counted at Mill House Leisure Centre tomorrow morning.
In 2005 Mr Drummond, having ditched monkey attire on his first day of office and only partially delivered on an election pledge to provide school children with free bananas, extended his majority to more than 10,000.
He said he is confident that he will be judged on his record. "My message is more of the same. The town has gone from strength to strength in recent years. Crime is lower than it has ever been; it is looking better and a lot cleaner. A few years ago we would have been laughed at if we said we were hosting the Tall Ships Race, which we are next year."
Hartlepool has impressed the Audit Commission too, which has named it one of the country's top five performing councils for the past seven years. "If you came to Hartlepool 10 to 15 years ago it was a bit of shit-hole to be honest. The place has transformed. People see what can be done and there is an air of optimism," he adds.
But not everyone appreciates the Mayor's plain speaking. Fellow independent Ian Cameron, a businessman, took exception to Mr Drummond's revelation in a newspaper that his most embarrassing moment in office was being sick in Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's toilet. "That made me ashamed to be from Hartlepool," Mr Cameron said. What most alarms Mr Cameron, who is also standing for the third time, is the rise in council tax – up 42.8 per cent since 2002 and the fifth highest in the UK. He wants to trim 5 per cent a year for three years – a target he says can be achieved by slashing "extravagances" and running the council along strictly business lines.
Hartlepool has long been a solid Labour seat that was once held by the Business Secretary, Lord Mandelson and Labour is the largest party on the council, but few believe its mayoral candidate is in with a chance.
Chris Simmons, a school administration manager, is promising a people's charter for Hartlepool but admits it has been hard getting his message heard above the din of the expenses scandal. "People classify all politicians – local or national – as a group. They do not distinguish and lump us all together. But we live in the community, we work in the community and have to face people on a daily basis and that is what we intend to do," he said.Reuse content