Gavin Rice is Head of the Work and Welfare Policy Unit at the Centre for Social Justice.
The Conservative are pursuing a clear tactic of expectation management with regard to the hotly anticipated by-election in Hartlepool, with the Prime Minister reminding activists of “the psephological reality [that] it’s a massive, massive challenge.”
Unseating Labour would require a 4.4 per cent national swing towards the government during the middle of a Parliament – which would be very unusual. Yet this week’s extraordinary poll by Survation, however, which gave the Tories a 17-point lead, is clear sign there is yet all to play for, and that a win may still be on the cards in this seat in the heart of the Red Wall – a win that could spell the death knell of Labour’s “Hampstead and Hartlepool” coalition once and for all.
The County Durham constituency voted for Brexit by a majority of over 69 per cent – the highest of anywhere in the UK. The Brexit Party’s Richard Tice took 25.8 per cent of the vote in 2019, with most analysts agreeing this came primarily at the expense of the Tories rather than from Labour; it’s unlikely Tice’s continuity outfit, Reform UK, will perform similarly.
If Hartlepool turned blue it would be a shock, but it would signal the continuation of a trend set by the likes of nearby Sedgefield and Bishop Auckland. While Labour has dominated in general elections but much less so in local government; its last spell of control over the borough was from 2010-19, and the council is currently Conservative-led.
Hartlepool is working-class, Lord Mandelson’s previous incumbency notwithstanding. The town itself represents most of the constituency, with some outlying suburbs and villages. It lies on the North Sea coast, 10 miles from the Tees estuary, and was formerly a major exporter of County Durham coal. It used to build ships, too, including the world’s second oil tanker, completed in 1886; it was once considered sufficiently important that it was the first part of the UK to be attacked by German ships during World War I.
With the passage of decades and the tide of deindustrialistion the industries that once sustained Hartlepool gradually disappeared, with the last ship yards closing in 1961. During the 1980s, Hartlepudlians endured unemployment rates of 30 per cent; 630 jobs were lost with British Steel in 1983, followed by thousands more as industrial decline was completed.
Unemployment remains a serious problem – the constituency currently has a Claimant Count of eleven per cent, nearly 30 per cent above the current UK average. A shocking 26 per cent of households are workless, with local demand for labour far below the national average. Only 55 per cent have a Level 3 qualification (A-level or above), and only a third have some form of higher education.
According to the director of a local charity speaking to the Centre for Social Justicde, the town has never recovered from the disappearance of local manufacturing, with many now consigned to working in call centres or other unstable, low-skilled work, with many on zero-hours contracts.
There was a fair amount of local investment under New Labour but this was stopped under the Coalition government, with the onset of austerity. The town has high levels of mental illness and depression, with many unfit for work: the disappearance of a local supply of jobs has driven this epidemic, precipitating a vicious cycle of worklessness.
“Working gives you a purpose – a reason to get out of bed. If you haven’t got that purpose, what have you got in your life?”, he said. There are many families dependent on benefits with little to no aspiration; those that want something better tend to depart for Leeds.
With the decline of manufacturing one of the biggest employers now is the local NHS hospital – this follows a pattern of public sector replacement of private sector jobs that is common throughout post-industrial regions. Another significant proportion of Hartlepool workers are employed in hospitality and catering sectors.
Hartlepool also experiences serious social problems. The charity director reports a close correlation between unemployment and drug addiction, adding with irony: “we have the cheapest drugs in the country by far”.
Health figures bear this out: Hartlepool has one of the highest rates of drug-related deaths in the country, with 46 fatal poisonings recorded between 2015 and 2017, far in excess of the British average. There are high rates of crime and anti-social behaviour, with further problems caused by reoffending on the part of Hartlepool’s resettled prison population.
Family breakdown is another major challenge, and his charity, which deals with homelessness and job support for the unemployed, has found that many in need of a roof over their heads have been made homeless due to a broken home. Data from the Healthy Relationships Partnership confirms the high level of relationship break-up in Hartlepool, reporting that of the children taken into care, in 80-90 per cent of cases involving abuse or neglect parental separation lay behind it.
Urban decay and low-quality housing remain an endemic problem, though there are more affluent private housing estates on the outskirts; improving housing is a high priority for Hartlepool voters, second only to a wider availability of stable, good quality jobs. The deterioration in the physical environment serves as a visual representation of the town’s economic decline.
Hartlepudlians do, however, retain a strong sense of local pride and attachment to their community. There is a desire for prosperity to return, rather than just opportunities to ship out. Data from a CSJ survey shows that residents of Hartlepool, like with many similar post-industrial constituencies, report high levels of community strength (measured by sense of security, interconnectedness and heritage) coexisting alongside high levels of material deprivation. Interestingly, this sense of community strength has not been undermined by Hartlepool’s high levels of social breakdown.
The Conservatives must anticipate further losses in the South if Britain’s political realignment along new tribal lines is set to continue – and a Tory win in Hartlepool would be a strong indicator that it will. Economically left-behind places with a strong local identity, regional pride and an attachment to place are precisely where the party must prove itself.
Hartlepool’s voters have been alienated by a southern, Remain-supporting Labour leadership, with local residents lamenting Labour’s metamorphosis from a party of the industrial working class into one led by an anti-Brexit lawyer from London. The Tories should provide a foil for this metropolitan shift, embracing instead a new politics of place.
On Brexit and on the social value of community the Tories should be Hartlepudlians’ natural home, but they are crying out for an economic transformation that restores prosperity and dignity to a constituency experiencing serious social decline. This decline has not eroded residents’ pride – only their environment and their livelihoods. Hartlepool is ripe for a fresh injection of hope. The Conservatives need Hartlepudlians’ votes: the government must deliver radical policies to effect regional regeneration, and make something truly meaningful out of the promise of levelling-up, if the party is to earn that vote.