A blue town now? Hartlepool voters say jobs and investment could keep them Tory for years to come

As Labour loses another chunk of its red wall heartland, people in the Conservatives’ newest seat say their switch in allegiance could be permanent if promises of employment are realised

Colin Drury
Saturday 08 May 2021 15:43
APTOPIX Britain Elections
APTOPIX Britain Elections

A blue-skied Friday lunchtime and, outside a cafe-bar on Hartlepool Marina, a family sit looking on as, 100 yards away, Boris Johnson turns up to meet a massive inflatable version of himself.

Dozens of photographers, reporters and assorted hangers-on scurry around the prime minister as he briefly poses with the 30ft doppelganger.

“Full of hot air,” says Mum, returning to her sandwich. “Just like the blimp.”

This was day one in the Conservatives’ newest northern kingdom.

Five hours earlier, following a torrid election night for Labour, a Tory MP had been elected in this Tees Valley port town for the first time in more than 60 years.

In perhaps the most significant by-election in half a century, Jill Mortimer, a councillor from North Yorkshire, beat rival Paul Williams by some 6,940 votes. It wasn’t just a win. It was a massacre.

But, as the country’s media spent Friday asking how Labour had lost yet another brick of its old red wall – indeed, as the party itself engages in a brutal weekend of recriminations – voters in the town itself were already looking to the future. And already demanding results from their new party of choice.

Speaking to people here, one common thread emerged. They knew, many said, that Boris came with bluff and bluster. But, after half a century of seeing their town in economic freefall, they were willing to put scepticism on hold and take a chance on a leader promising investment and job creation.

Now, Johnson and Mortimer have two years to deliver – or face a kicking at the next election. To some extent the pair are already living on borrowed time. Hartlepool this weekend feels like a town stood with its arms folded and its jaw set: go on then, it is saying, impress us.

“We’ve promised a lot,” nods Ray Martin-Wells, president of the Hartlepool Conservative Association. “Now we need to make sure we do what we’ve said because, as Labour have found out, this is an independent-minded place and people here will have no issue getting rid of us at the next election if they feel we have taken them for granted. We’re fully aware we’re already on notice.”

He himself was at the count on Friday morning at the town’s Mill House Leisure Centre. “I’ve been a member of the Conservatives since I was 18, and I’ve had more miserable election nights there than I can remember,” the 52-year-old planning consultant says. “So Friday was surreal. We have to make it count.”

The way to do that, he reckons, is, above all else, with jobs. “People here don’t want handouts or charity, they want work,” he says. “We have high unemployment here. If Boris can reverse that, he’ll be treated like a hero.”

Hartlepool, it should be said, has much going for it.

It is a seagull’s leap from some of the north’s most beautiful coast, while in the town itself, the marina has been transformed into a hub of bars and restaurants. Town landmarks include the prestigious Northern School of Art and the BIS creative industries hub in the old General Post Office.

But economically at least, the past 50 years have not been kind. The shipyards closed in the Sixties; recession decimated the steel industry in the Seventies; and Margaret Thatcher finished off the nearby collieries in the Eighties. Under the austerity of the Noughties, the council’s budget was slashed by 40 per cent and the local hospital’s A&E and maternity units were closed. In 2019, it was ranked as the 10th most deprived place in the UK.

Against this backdrop – and with many residents equating the decline with six decades of Labour MPs – the Tories’ promises proved irresistible. Not least because they came from a party perceived to have already delivered much-wanted Brexit.

“Does it surprise me he won?” ponders Taffy Turner, landlord of the Mill House pub directly opposite the leisure centre. “He’s not my cup of tea but you’d have to have been blind to not see that’s the way things were going.”

For him, too, the shift rightwards comes down to a simple question of employment.

“I’ve been on the dole myself and it’s horrible,” the 57-year-old says. “You wake up everyday with nowt to do, no hope and no pride. Demoralising. And there’s too many lads here going through that. If he [Johnson] can get this town moving again, he’ll do me.”

Many, it seems, took the chance on going blue because they feel former red wall seats that voted Tory at the 2019 general election are already reaping some benefits. The new Treasury North campus opening in Darlington and the expansion of Teesside International Airport are both regularly referenced here as evidence that the government’s much-trumpeted levelling-up agenda appears to be improving these deindustrialised towns.

“You see that money going there and you get told that’s what will happen here and it’s hard to ignore that,” says Alan Teather, a quiltmaker with his own shop in the town’s picturesque Upper Church Street. “It’s over to Boris now.”

He himself voted for the, er, Monster Raving Loony Party. That in itself is probably emblematic of a deep Labour malaise. Until this year, he has always voted red and spent time as a party member. “I got into the booth and I couldn’t bring myself to vote for a Remainer like Williams,” the 59-year-old declares. “I suppose it was a protest vote in a way. No regrets doing it.”

Alan Teather

As for Mortimer herself, the mother-of-three largely refused to be interviewed during her campaign and appears to be following the same course now elected. She blandly batted away a few questions from reporters soon after she was announced as the new MP (“I see myself as the MP for Hartlepool, and the people of Hartlepool,” she said at one point) but has remained mainly silent since Friday.

Asked why she wouldn’t talk, her media strategist Jonathan Redhead appeared to suggest she could not be trusted. “We had to do what was right for her to win the election,” he told The Independent.

All the same, the silent – or silenced – Mortimer will presumably already be aware that, while Westminster commentators obsess over how Labour can win back the north, the result of the next Hartlepool election will, in fact, almost certainly actually rest on what the Tories do next.

As Ben Houchen - the popular Tory mayor of the Tees Valley here - proved when he won a second term this week, politicians who are are perceived to do what they say are liked and rewarded in this part of the world.

At this by-election, Hartlepool voted for employment and opportunities. If Mortimer delivers those things over the next two or three years, she has a good chance of winning again – no matter if or how Labour changes. If she does not, this is a town which will have no compunction in consigning her to be a one-term wonder.

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