“Same shit, different day.” This is how the host for my accommodation in Hartlepool describes Tory ‘sleaze’ and politics generally. My first conversation upon arriving in the Tees Valley town holding a key by-election on May 6th touches on a theme that runs through most of my interactions with locals: deep cynicism. To hear “they’re all the same” is always a common refrain on the doorstep, but in Hartlepool it seems to weigh particularly heavy and is paired with a strong feeling of resignation.
She knows of the Downing Street refurbishment story – which sees Boris Johnson accused of initially paying for a redesign of his flat with an undeclared loan from a Tory donor – though isn’t fussed. “He’s a very naughty boy!” she says of the Prime Minister. “Some people are fuming with him about the wallpaper. I don’t care… Would the Queen be any different? And I love her.”
My Hartlepool host continues: “All my family is Labour because we’re all hard-working Northerners. We do get forgotten about up here. I know they [the Tories] have made us a free port and stuff, but you know what I mean? They give us nothing because we don’t ask – we’re not rude enough to ask. We just work and get on with it, like most people in the country.”
Arriving at the Labour campaign centre that afternoon, I am sent off to push leaflets through the brushy letterboxes of pebbledashed terraces, before door-knocking in Manor House. In this ward filled with bungalows, new builds, clean pavements and lots of green space, long-serving councillors who in recent years left Labour for the Socialist Labour Party are standing down in May. But we are here to campaign for Labour’s parliamentary candidate, Dr Paul Williams, who is hoping to keep the constituency red in a by-election this week after incumbent Mike Hill quit.
The reception on the doorstep is not terrible. It bears little resemblance to Dudley North in 2019, for example, where canvassing for Labour was painful and you didn’t need to be Mystic Meg to predict the seat was going Tory in a big way. Everyone is pleasant even if they are not planning to vote Labour, which the party organiser leading the session is grateful for. Unlike in 2019, “people are willing to listen”, she says. Labour did hold onto Hartlepool that year, though. While the current leadership will be keen to point out that Richard Tice split the pro-Brexit vote last time, there is no doubt Keir Starmer’s Labour will appear to be going backwards rather than making progress if Hartlepool is lost on May 6th.
Sources close to the Labour leadership are briefing that the vaccine bounce is real and incumbency (in terms of government) is going to pay off at the ballot box. They also reason that “this is a pandemic election” – a line used by Anas Sarwar in Scotland – and therefore no long-term trends can be deduced from the results, which are not expected to be all that good for Labour. Polls show the Conservatives are set to win this by-election and keep hold of key mayoralties such as Tees Valley and the West Midlands. Starmer allies have suggested Labour could do better than previously expected in Scotland and Wales, however, and Hartlepool will be close either way.
On the doorstep, I get a few Labour voters, all lifelong supporters, a Tory, and several choosing not to participate. “Can’t be bothered with all that, pet,” one says, shutting the door. “I’m fed up with it, they’re all the same,” another tells me. Nobody I encountered was especially angry with Labour, which is obviously positive. But they are despondent – a response that is less distressing in the moment, though perhaps ultimately more disheartening.
“Nothing ever gets done here,” says Tracy, Hartlepool born and bred, living in De Bruce ward. The big indoor shopping centre is “empty because the rents are so high”. The market? “That’s a waste of time. Blink and you miss it.” She once moved “down south”, to Luton, and saw a huge difference. “Went for a weekend, stayed four year,” she tells me while waiting for her second Covid jab. “I will vote, I’m not gonna waste my vote. The only one I’m certain about is the mayor.” Tracy admits that she is delighted with Tory Tees Valley mayor Ben Houchen, though “dad would turn in his grave”. Labour’s Dr Paul Williams, who was MP in an almost neighbouring seat until 2019, is put down with the cutting question: “What does he want with Hartlepool when they kicked him out of Stockton?” Yet he may get her vote anyway. “For MP, it will probably be the Labour one, because they do a bit better than the Conservatives here.”
Elaine, who is undecided, gives her verdict on Labour’s candidate while discussing campaign literature. “One of them’s a doctor at the moment. I said to my daughter, he must have more money than sense. The amount of leaflets he’s put out is unbelievable.” What about his pledges? “It’s just the normal garbage about, “oh I want to do this for the town and I want to do that for the country” and it’s like, well, I’ll believe it when I see it.” Like one of the voters I meet on the doorstep, she praises Ted Leadbitter, Labour MP for the Hartlepools then Hartlepool from 1964 to 1992. She puts in a good word for Elizabeth II, too. “If the Queen wanted to be Prime Minister, I’d vote for her. She’s a very intelligent woman and our royalty is what we’re proud of.”
Boris Johnson comes in for some criticism, but it’s either not very serious or it’s affectionate. “He looks scruffy all the time. His hair’s a mess. You know, if you’re in government, you’re representing the country. Tidy yourself up. Buck your ideas up,” says Elaine. “Johnson is a bumbling idiot, right, but he’s just likeable. He’s funny and likeable,” says Stan, a Tory voter, who is aware of the sleaze stories. “A bit of fiddling, you just expect it anyway. He’s no different. Politicians are politicians.”
Asked about the idea of Hartlepool returning a Tory MP, a retired teacher on the high street replies: “It wouldn’t surprise me. Let’s face it, the people in this town, they voted for a monkey as the mayor. He was popular. You know, he offered all the children bananas, and then he realised that was going to be quite an undertaking, he had to roll back on his offer.” He is referring to Stuart Drummond, the town’s football club’s mascot H’Angus the Monkey, elected as Hartlepool mayor in 2002. He proved so popular he was re-elected twice.
This Hartlepool voter reckons he will “probably” opt for Labour in the by-election, though “only because I feel that they are the underdog”. On Keir Starmer, he says: “I think he’s hopeless. I’m really disappointed in him. He daren’t do anything without looking as to what people are gonna say.” The flat refurbishment scandal? “I’m really not interested in it. Well, nothing would surprise me anymore. That’s the sad thing… I don’t trust any of them. That’s the worst part.” That those I spoke to in Hartlepool were not engaged by allegations of Tory sleaze does not mean these stories should be ignored, of course. But as the ex-teacher says: “In this town, apathy rules.”