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Labour Could Lose To A Near-Invisible Tory Candidate In Hartlepool. What Does It Mean For Keir Starmer’s leadership?

9 min read

They are polling far ahead of Labour and may have a historic win on Thursday, but the Tories’ approach to the Hartlepool by-election has so far been to field a candidate who has lurked in the background of her own campaign.

North Yorkshire farmer Jill Mortimer’s submarine profile, offset by very public elbow-bumping, selfie-taking appearances from the Prime Minister and a popular regional mayor in Ben Houchen, could prove to be a winning formula.

It suggests the Conservatives are now on solid ideological and political ground with local voters, and could leave Labour in severe doubt about their electoral strategy if, after 57 years, they don’t manage to keep the town red.

“We’re a queer lot in Hartlepool,” said one self-deprecating local resident. He was joking about the town’s independent political spirit, and it’s certainly a complicated picture. There are 16 candidates standing to be the new MP, including four independents.

Nigel Farage’s former Brexit Party is thought to have robbed the Tories of a win just 18 months ago at the 2019 General Election by taking 10,000 votes – and after weeks of campaigning it appears that’s being redistributed back to the Tories. The latest Survation poll shows they are 17 points ahead. 

PoliticsHome gave plenty of notice to the regional campaign team but the Tory candidate wasn’t available to meet with us, nor apparently were any regional campaigners, organisers, councillors or activists.

Lines from the party chair, Amanda Milling, were offered, but as we’d recently interviewed her, we asked for a local Tory MP instead. We didn’t get one. Other media organisations have experienced a similar lack of response.

The Tories’ candidate, Mortimer, is knocking on doors, appeared with Johnson at the beach on Bank Holiday Monday, and took part in the BBC Politics North show. Labour campaigners and Reform UK said they haven’t run into her campaigning. 

When asked by Politics North presenter Richard Moss if she understood the town’s issues, she replied she grew up in the city of Leeds and said it was very similar in terms of the things that go on. Then she said her area of Leeds was more like a town. Then she added, “Hartlepool is more like a village than a town.”

Scientist John Brunger, 31, who works at Hart Biologicals in the town, was part of the team that took Labour front-bencher Rachel Reeves and the party’s candidate for Hartlepool, Dr Paul Williams, a GP, through their work as part of a final party campaign visit on Tuesday.

Brunger had set up a lightbox saying “Welcome Labour” above his desk with a love heart. He’s from East Cleveland so isn’t eligible to vote in the by-election, but asked if he was surprised about the poll showing the Tories ahead, he said: “Not really, because they’re doing so well in the North East... I expect them to win to be honest.”

“Even though I’m not a Conservative voter it’s perhaps having a local MP the same as the government [which means] I think we get more out of the government. For example, we got the freeport and that’s mainly because of Tory MPs and the mayor. Ben Houchen’s in the papers quite a lot and publishes quite a lot about what he does.”

Houchen, who won the Tees Valley Mayoralty in 2017, and is up for re-election, is widely seen to have brought investment to the area. It’s hard to escape the mayor. Even at the train station two articles from Hartlepool Life about his work on railway regeneration are pinned to a notice board, his face watching over anyone using the vending machine. 

Another member of staff at the Hart Biologicals said: “There’s no Labour stronghold [here].”

“The Brexit voters have gone Conservative by the looks of it,” he said, and suggested no one should rule out the impact of independents on vote share, like businesswoman Samantha Lee.  

An older member of staff, who said he had backed Labour’s former leader Jeremy Corbyn, wouldn’t say how he was voting this time but expected the seat to go Tory. 

“I think it’s going Conservative, I was more [of] a Corbyn fan so I’m not that pleased with Keir Starmer either,” he said. 

In the centre of town, a woman in her 60s said she had voted Tory for a long time but just hadn’t told her family. Her grandma, who worked in collieries, would be “turning in her grave” if she had seen how she’d cast her postal vote. 

“All three of my votes were Conservative. Dr Paul Williams… I must have had 55 things through my door about him.”

The Brexit voters have gone Conservative by the looks of it

Laughing, she said: “This Paul, I think I know him personally. My sister though, she’s just flinging them all in the bin.” 

No-one could accuse Dr Williams of being low profile, and Labour are throwing the kitchen sink at the seat. Four shadow ministers were piled into the campaign HQ, dressed in waterproof trousers and jackets, and fuelled on fish and chips from Mary Lambert’s. There will be another set of big-name front benchers sent up today. 

Williams said the notion that a Tory vote means investment and jobs is contradicted by the fact that at the local manufacturer Liberty Steel, 250 jobs are at risk.

“Boris Johnson’s had his photo taken with an entourage around him at the beach but he hasn’t been to Liberty Streel. You look in the eyes of the people who are about to go on furlough, and they’re wondering if they’ll ever come back. It just needs government intervention and the government needs to give them some confidence it will keep those jobs. That’s where Boris Johnson should have been,” he said.

He’s extremely knowledgeable about the area and has solutions for bringing back more health services to the town, having spent the last year treating Covid patients. Yet he was a staunch remain supporter in a town that voted 69 per cent leave. He isn’t exactly a round peg in a round hole. 

Shadow Chancellor for the Duchy of Lancaster, Rachel Reeves, who was campaigning with Williams said the Houchen effect hadn’t once come up on the doors in the three sessions she had been out on, but she knows he has a high profile. 

“The fact that these elections are on the same day is obviously a challenge for Labour because I know people will be coming out potentially to vote for him… but a lot of people do split their ticket in things like this,” she said. 

“People will make sophisticated choices.”

She accepted some voters had moved on from Labour, despite it being the party of their parents and grandparents. 

“We know we’ve got a lot of work to re-win the trust of people in Hartlepool and elsewhere. They felt let down by us. You can’t expect us to come back, change leader, and for all to be forgiven,” he said.  

Asked if Keir Starmer should stand down if this by-election is lost, she said: “Absolutely not. I don’t think anyone thought a year into his leadership all Labour’s problems would be resolved. We went through the worst election defeat since 1935 just over a year ago.”

And what’s happened to the Brexit Party – now Reform UK – who just 18 months ago caused electoral upset, polling nearly as many votes as the Tories, and possibly snatched a majority from them?  

John Prescott (not the former Deputy PM), who built up and managed a number of IT companies before politics, is walking miles every day, knocking on doors (he’s managed 6,000 so far), to try and retain some of the 10,000 votes the Brexit Party got at the 2019 general election. 

Now rebranded as the Reform UK led by businessman Richard Tice, and with Nigel Farage an honorary president and not partaking in his usual election pint-pulling antics, the party is an unknown quantity. 

Prescott said: “People tell us that Hartlepool feels like the poor cousin of Teeside. They just want an MP that’s going to fight for Hartlepool and spend time in the town. We want to win the seat but it’s a big old task tackling the two main parties.” 

On one doorstep in the Throston area, where they polled well in 2019, a young man answers the door of his neat semi-detached house with his pet border terrier. 

I do also get the feeling that a lot of people are only voting Tory because they want to vote out Labour

He’s undecided but clear he doesn’t think much of Labour. Prescott’s spiel focuses on jobs, apprenticeships, improving local services, with an overall message of lower tax. His campaign aide Andrew Elliott says the Survation poll which put them at one percent isn’t reflective of what they’ve seen on the ground.

On the Tories being out in front, Prescott reflects on the economic make-up of the town. “Eighty-seven percent of its housing is in Band A to C council tax, this gives you some idea of the demographic. I struggle to see how the Tories are going to win the seat. I just don’t think Tory policies help people in Hartlepool, especially those on low incomes.”

“But I do also get the feeling that a lot of people are only voting Tory because they want to vote out Labour.”

Unlike in Scotland where he’s actively stayed away, Boris Johnson has become the Tory party’s biggest asset in Hartlepool. Next is their Tory regional mayor Ben Houchen. At the bottom of the list of reasons to vote for the party appears to be their actual candidate, who remains largely unknown with just 48 hours to go.

Dr Williams is at pains to point out it’s a straight battle between a North Yorkshire farmer and a locally-based GP, who has been fighting on the coronavirus front-line.

But it’s just not that simple. This election has got mixed up, and it’s not just about who the local MP is, but the regional and national political scene. No-one will be surprised if it’s a Tory win but how Mortimer got there, by being a bit-part in her own campaign, is what will be keeping Labour awake at night. 

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