Election 2019

General election 2019: Why is the Brexit Party targeting Hartlepool?

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Media caption"I just don't know which politician to believe"

The Brexit Party has its eye on Hartlepool, the town that delivered the most decisive Leave vote in the north-east of England in the 2016 EU referendum.

Despite being a Labour stronghold for decades - and the Labour candidate insisting Brexit has hardly been mentioned when he has been canvassing - could Hartlepool give Nigel Farage's party its first Westminster MP this week?

The sometimes rebellious nature of Hartlepool's electorate is perhaps best illustrated by a man dressed as a monkey becoming mayor.

Stuart Drummond was H'Angus the Monkey, the simian suit-wearing mascot of the town's football club who won the 2002 mayoral election on the strength of offering every school pupil a daily banana. Despite not delivering on that pledge, he won two more terms and was widely regarded as having done a good job.

But throughout his time as mayor, the town had a Labour MP - and in fact it has since 1964.

Over those decades, Hartlepool has lost its shipbuilding, fishing, steel and coalmining industries. The town saw something of a regeneration in the 1990s when Tony Blair's close associate Peter Mandelson - now Lord Mandelson - was Hartlepool's MP, with the development of a marina and a maritime heritage centre.

But many may be more familiar with images from Channel 4's Skint Britain, which showed those struggling with the introduction of Universal Credit resorting to crime and hunting rabbits and squirrels for food.

Image copyright PA Media/Stuart Drummond
Image caption H'Angus the Monkey aka Stuart Drummond was elected Hartlepool's mayor in 2002 and held the job until it was abolished

The Brexit Party's attempt to end 55 years of red rule has seen it choose party chairman and property millionaire Richard Tice to contest the seat.

His pitch has been one of having a "track record of finding solutions", with plans to rekindle Hartlepool's fishing fleet among his ambitions.

Mr Tice promised his belief in "common sense politics" would "bring money and jobs into Hartlepool" when he announced his candidacy last month.

The Brexit Party's confidence in Hartlepool was such that it was chosen as the venue for Mr Farage's announcement the party would not field candidates in safe Tory seats.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Richard Tice is chairman of the Brexit Party

Hartlepool Council's current leader, Shane Moore, predictably reckons Mr Tice has a "very good chance" of winning.

Mr Moore was one of 10 independent councillors who joined the Brexit Party and formed a coalition with the Conservatives to take control of the authority in September.

One of the councillors, David Mincher, was expelled from the Brexit Party this week for racist comments he made to undercover reporters. He also resigned his seat on the council.

Mr Moore said: "There have been suggestions by people from outside of the town that Richard being parachuted in - their words not mine - was a mistake, and 'what does he know about Hartlepool?'

"But you know what, we have had years of local candidates and local MPs and what have we had to show for it?

"Richard wasn't parachuted in against the wishes of party members here. We wanted Richard to be here and have welcomed him with open arms."

Hartlepool Headland
Hartlepool in Numbers

  • 7,650Labour majority in 2017

  • 93,200Population

  • 8,900Workless households (UK 2.9m)

  • 69.6%Voted Leave in 2016 EU referendum (UK 51.9%)

  • 8.3%Unemployment rate (UK average 3.8%)

  • 19.3%People claiming one or more main DWP benefits (UK 11%)

Source: ONS / Electoral Commission

In the 2017 general election Labour's Mike Hill held Hartlepool with 52.5% of the vote, with the Conservatives coming in second on 34.2% and UKIP third with 11.5%.

Two years before, in the 2015 election, UKIP took 28% of the vote and was second behind Labour.

This time around Mr Hill said the "mood music" on the doorstep has been good, with "no hostility" to Labour.

"This is not a Brexit election in Hartlepool. In fact Brexit has hardly been mentioned when we've spoken to people on the doorstep," the Labour candidate said.

"What we're getting is ordinary issues that affect people's everyday lives, such as the NHS, policing and crime, the state of the streets. Anything but Brexit.

"The Brexit Party have put a ton of money into their campaign in Hartlepool, with billboards being driven around and wraparound adverts in local newspapers. You name it, they chucked money at it.

"We obviously need to tackle the Brexit issue, there is no doubt about that.

"That means quickly implementing Labour's policy to negotiate a better deal with the EU and put it to the people within six months.

"Then we need to get on and reverse the economic decline of coastal areas like Hartlepool."

Image copyright Mike Hill for Hartlepool
Image caption Mike Hill (left) campaigning with Labour Party chairman Ian Lavery

But council leader Mr Moore said he believed Labour's "confused" Brexit policy, and the legacy of being in power when the town lost its A&E department, would cost it votes.

"Hartlepool needs jobs, quality affordable housing and anyone will tell you on the doorstep that there is a very sour taste with the Labour Party for the fact that they presided over us losing our accident and emergency department.

"People are very bitter about that and the loss of other hospital services," he added.

Mr Hill acknowledged that anger and said it was "fully understood" but stressed in his time as MP he had fought hard to prevent "further leakage" of services.

Image caption Hartlepool's marina was redeveloped in the 1990s

Conservative candidate Stefan Houghton said he believed people in the constituency who had traditionally voted Labour would "take the plunge" and vote for his party this year.

"The overriding sentiment is a lot of long-term Labour voters are so disillusioned with Jeremy Corbyn and Labour's stance towards Brexit, they are going to vote Conservative because we are trying to get Brexit done."

But he believed the Brexit Party standing would dent his chance of being elected as MP.

"Frankly I think the Conservatives would have won Hartlepool had the Brexit Party not been standing. It is a real pity that the Brexit Party is standing," Mr Houghton said.

He said he thought the Brexit Party would get thousands of votes the Conservatives would have got and "the price could be that Labour hang on".

"What I am hoping will happen is the dropping Brexit Party national poll ratings will start to reflect in Hartlepool and people start to think they can't form a government only talking about Brexit," said Mr Houghton.

Among his top priorities would be tackling crime, improving hospital services and tackling the unemployment rate in the area and he believed he would be in a "unique position" as a Conservative MP, working with a Conservative Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen and a Conservative government to bring in resources to Hartlepool.

Image copyright PAUL ELLIS
Image caption Hartlepool has consistently had one of the highest unemployment rates in the country

A dependency on state benefits, high unemployment and lack of long-term investment would be reasons the Brexit Party would think it could win in Hartlepool, according to Caitlin Milazzo, Associate Professor in Politics at Nottingham University.

"The demographics of Hartlepool make it an ideal target for the Brexit Party," she said.

Ms Milazzo, who co-authored a book on the rise of UKIP, said Hartlepool was a town where "UKIP were successful in breaking into Labour heartland".

"Hartlepool is more inclined towards working class and fewer professionals and its demographic profile in terms of education (is) consistent with the kind of seats where UKIP would do quite well," she said.

"Basically the Brexit Party has cannibalised UKIP, but the strategy is the same. So they think they can win in Hartlepool because they think the demographic is right for them.

"There are also relatively few young people in Hartlepool and very few professionals and quite a few in working class occupations and without qualifications.

"It's also a seat that happens to be predominately white. So all of these things together create the perfect demographic mix for first UKIP and now the Brexit Party.

"If you think about the 2015 election, that was UKIP's best shot. They had groundswell of support, party politics were fragmented and they got just under 30% of the vote. I think that's their upper limit.

"If you imagine every voter who was going to vote Conservative votes for the Brexit Party, plus all of those who voted for UKIP, they still don't get enough."

The full list of candidates standing in Hartlepool is:

  • Joe Bousfield (Independent)
  • Kevin Cranney (Socialist Labour Party)
  • Andy Hagon (Liberal Democrat)
  • Mike Hill (Labour)
  • Stefan Houghton (Conservative)
  • Richard Tice (Brexit Party)

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