Hartlepool elections: Inside Labour’s bid to take back control in ‘red wall’ town

Daniel Green
Hartlepool as Labour targets gains at the 2024 local elections. Photo: pauljrobinson / Shutterstock.com

Hartlepool almost spelt the end of Keir Starmer’s leadership before it really began, as a recent biography revealed.

Labour’s loss of the town in County Durham, which had been held by the party for almost six decades, in a 2021 by-election was a new low after the party was ousted from power on the local council in 2019.

The by-election defeat is engraved in the heart of Jonathan Brash, deputy leader of the local Labour Party and the party’s candidate for Hartlepool at the general election.

“My immediate feeling was that Labour have to listen and they have to learn,” he said.

“We’d been given a right royal kicking by the people and the reaction to that is to work out what we did wrong and what we need to do right in the future.

“There are some politicians, when they lose, who are keen to blame the electorate for losing – it’s not the electorate’s fault, it’s your fault. If you haven’t got your message across, you have to do better.

“It wasn’t Hartlepool abandoning Labour, it was Labour abandoning Hartlepool.”

Jonathan Brash and Brenda Harrison
Jonathan Brash, PPC for Hartlepool, and leader of the Labour group on Hartlepool Borough Council Brenda Harrison.

However, three years on from that disappointing by-election result at the height of Boris Johnson’s popularity, Labour is on the brink of returning to power in the Tees Valley town.

Last year’s local elections saw the party win five seats and fall one seat short of achieving a majority on the council – missing out by just three votes. A Tory-independent coalition runs the local authority.

LabourList sat down with Jonathan Brash and leader of the Labour group Brenda Harrison at the party’s headquarters in the town’s high street to discuss the campaign.

Cllr Brash said: “Brenda and I, as leader and deputy leader, have worked incredibly hard because we recognise you don’t just assume people are going to come back to you.

“People in Hartlepool are discerning. They’re going to make a decision based on what you do and how you work for them, so we have worked incredibly hard to win back trust.”

Cllr Harrison is hoping to become Hartlepool’s first female council leader. She said that trust has become a crucial issue on the doorstep to earn the votes of people in Hartlepool.

She explained: “There’s still quite a lot of apathy and we have to make sure they can trust us, because they lost trust before.”

Apathy and antisocial behaviour

LabourList spoke to a number of people out and about recently in Hartlepool about the issues that could sway their votes, with two main themes emerging – antisocial behaviour and the decline of the local high street.

One mother of two, who did not want to give her name, raised concerns about antisocial behaviour in Hartlepool, but said that she would “maybe” vote for the Conservatives at the local election. “They’re doing what they can.”

However, one shopper at the town’s Middleton Grange Shopping Centre was blunter about her political views. “I don’t like the Tories.”

She highlighted how several shops in the town centre and in the mall itself had closed in recent years.

Dawson Straughan

Dawson Straughan, who flies drones in his retirement, made a similar point. While he said there was much to be proud of in Hartlepool, like the town’s naval museum, Dawson said many bigger shops had moved out of town while smaller retailers had closed altogether.

Straughan’s views were a case in point of the kind of distrust local Labour councillors feel they must address, having never voted in his life.

“Politicians will say one thing to your face, but then go and do something completely different,” he said.

‘Services going, taxes going up’

Brash said that under the Conservative government, Hartlepool has seen its funding cut by more than £230 million, with the town’s magistrates’ court closing after six decades, along with the town’s A&E department.

“It’s services going, taxes going up – that’s the legacy of the Conservative Party in Hartlepool,” he said.


Brash also criticised the Tories’ approach to levelling up in Hartlepool, highlighting how council chiefs used £1.25 million of public money to redevelop a boutique hotel, while a nearby further education college had seen its funding cut.

“You’ve got handing over huge wads of cash to rich private developers so they can make more money themselves and the absolute jewel in our crown in terms of education and skills having its funding cut every year – that’s levelling up as far as the Conservatives are concerned,” Brash said.

Local manifesto unveiled, but ‘no easy fix’ for all local challenges

Key pledges in Hartlepool Labour’s manifesto.

In its local manifesto, Labour is pledging a new approach and renewed dedication to the people of Hartlepool, with candidates from all walks of life – from NHS workers to business owners.

Among the policies the party is offering for the local elections are ensuring safer neighbourhoods by coordinating tough action on crime and antisocial behaviour, cleaning up the town and cutting councillor allowances and expenses to put the money into services the public need.

Cllr Harrison said that there would not be an “easy fix” for many of the issues Hartlepool faces, primarily due to cuts in funding, but that a Labour administration would work hard to make life better for the people who live there

While she said she is not complacent, Cllr Harrison said she and Labour’s team in Hartlepool were “more confident” of increasing their number of councillors next month.

She said: “We have done a lot of work this year in order to prepare for hopefully taking over the council.  We have looked at what various skills we’ve got within our group, we’ve looked at which people would be best placed in positions within the council so they can focus on their area of expertise.

“We’ve also been active at looking at the constitution and getting us better placed to do a better job by changing certain things within the constitution.”

‘People are suffering and they need help’


Labour’s campaign headquarters in Hartlepool town centre

Cllr Harrison also said there has been an excitement among party activists at the prospect of taking control of the council, with the party knocking on thousands of doors last month alone.


However, Brash said taking control of the council would not be a moment for celebration and said: “That’s the moment you get to serve, that’s the moment you get down to work – it’s not about cheering and being elated, it’s about going ‘Right, what’s next?’.

“Our focus is completely on that, it’s about getting on with the job. People are suffering and they need help.”

‘We need a full-time fighter for Hartlepool’

Looking towards the general election in the next few months, Cllr Brash said that the “veil has completely fallen” from the Tories since the 2021 by-election, and said the local Conservative MP should be far more present and responsive locally.

“We need a full-time fighter for the town and we need someone who understands Hartlepool,” Cllr Brash said.

“People are very clear they want to reject the Conservative Party – our job is to make them want to vote for the Labour Party.”

He also said that, if elected, he could form a “united team” with a Labour council to make the town better for everyone.

Results of the 2021 by-election.


“I grew up in Hartlepool, I met my wife here, we are raising our kids here, so Hartlepool means absolutely everything. The future of this town is my children’s future.

“It’s Hartlepool first, country second, party a very distant third for me. My job is to make my home town better for everyone who lives here, including my kids.

“We need a Labour council locally and Labour government nationally because that is when we can start fixing so many of the things that have been broken by the Conservative Party.”

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