Quite apart from some serious implications for modern British politics, this also has to be one of the most bizarre contests of modern times. When it comes to by-elections, next Thursday’s battle for Hartlepool really is a collector’s item.
Here we have no fewer than 16 candidates, including three former Labour MPs, a convicted sex offender, a kinsman of the man who built the town and an ex-soldier driving round in a tank under the banner of the Social Democrats. All of a sudden, the Monster Raving Loony Party candidate (whose manifesto includes hiring the Hartlepool Arms’ darts team to speed up vaccinations) doesn’t look quite so loony after all.
Not that there is much mirth in either the Tory or Labour camps. For this battle is pivotal.
This picture shows Dr Paul Williams, the Labour Party candidate, on the stump in the townInsurance Loans Mortgage Attorney Credit Lawyer
Conservative candidate Jill Mortimer (centre) with colleagues Edwards Timpson MP (L) and Neville Lishman (R) canvassing in the towns Own Manor district
If the Tories win this former Labour citadel, then Boris Johnson will have defied the laws of political gravity. Mid-term Tory governments in crisis are supposed to lose safe seats, not steal them off the Opposition. Sir Keir Starmer, meanwhile, will face a civil war. Given that Labour won this seat twice under the last leader, Jeremy Corbyn’s followers will argue that it is now time to lurch back to the Left.
And the omens? I do not meet anyone who raises the issue of ‘Tory sleaze’ on the doorstep. However, there are two things which most people bring up right away: Jabs and Brexit. And both play well for the Conservatives.
Much as it may baffle the Westminster wonks, Brexit is still a live issue here in a town that voted 70:30 to leave the European Union. Just as the miners’ strike still haunts families and friendships in some mining towns, so the Brexit debate – and who stood where in it – will be part of local folklore for years to come. The fact that the Labour candidate, ex-MP Dr Paul Williams, was a keen Remainer, is a real issue.
In the town centre, most people don’t want to stop and talk politics. Of those who do, the ones slagging off Labour outnumber Tory-haters by roughly two to one.
The most surreal moment is when I stop one who turns out to have been a Labour councillor for 12 years, until he became an independent in 2016. ‘For the first time in my life, I’ll be voting Tory,’ he says. ‘We need a change. If it’s a disaster, I’ll switch back to Labour but for now, it’s Tory.’
Right now, the Conservatives are the bookies’ favourites and ahead in the polls. Don’t write off Labour just yet. At the last election, of course, this part of the North East saw the Tories bring the famous ‘red wall’ crashing down in so many safe Labour seats. Yet in Hartlepool, Labour held on. Clearly, they were greatly helped by a Brexit Party vote of 10,600, just behind the Tories on 11,800, which let Labour slip through the middle on 15,400.
Yet reports of Labour’s death in Hartlepool have been proved wrong time and again. Even when the former MP, Peter Mandelson, was twice forced to resign as a minister and then chucked in the seat to join the European Commission, Labour held on every time.
And this town has always had an individualist streak. It famously elected a football mascot in a monkey costume as executive mayor in 2002. It was no joke, either. Stuart Drummond – widely regarded as an excellent choice – was the first executive mayor in Britain to be elected three times in a row.Insurance Loans Mortgage Attorney Credit Lawyer
The current council, meanwhile, is run by a coalition of independents. In other words, Hartlepool is a one-off.
Throw in the fact that there are four elections here next week – the by-election, council elections, the election for the Mayor of Teesside and the vote for the police thingummy – and there are an awful lot of leaflets flying through Hartlepudlian letterboxes right now. The parliamentary seat, though, is a two-horse race this time around.
Voters in Hartlepool will have their say on the town's new MP at the approaching by-election to be held on 6th May. Labour have held the seat since 1964 but the Tories are