Cracks in the dam: Hartlepool and the ‘red wall’
July 22, 2021
Labour’s headline-making loss of Hartlepool in May’s parliamentary by-election caused yet further questions of the party’s direction and its connection with voters. Having lost what was once a staunch seat to the Conservatives for the first time in more than 50 years, Greg Rosenvinge looks at what is next for the party amid further weakening of its so-called North East ‘Red Wall’
“For Hartlepool and Labour, it stems back to your grandad, your dad and it’s passed on to you; ‘you vote Labour because we’re working class’.
“Now we’ve got to the stage where we can think for ourselves.
“We’ve had enough of Labour; they’ve just wrecked it.”
These were the words of Malcolm Gretton, a Hartlepool resident, when he was interviewed live on BBC Breakfast the morning after Hartlepool constituency’s epochal by-election result.
On May 6, for the first time since 1964, Hartlepool did not return a Labour MP in a parliamentary election.
Instead, Conservative candidate Jill Mortimer was elected with a stomping 51.9 per cent of the vote, a 23 per cent swing of votes from the 2019 General Election.
Understandably, this was a huge story that made national news, and indicated further that the alleged crumbling of the ‘Red Wall’ has become a sustained force in British politics, one that Labour has to start reckoning with.
“It’s been a long time coming, and not just because of Labour’s indecision on Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership,” says Steve Rayson, researcher and author of The Fall of the Red Wall.
“Granted, both issues were unpopular on the doorstep, as shown in the 2019 election, but these factors merely accelerated a long-term decline in Labour votes across ‘Red Wall’ seats.”
Hartlepool is yet another instance of a crumbling ‘Red Wall’.
Since Peter Mandelson retained Hartlepool as Labour’s candidate in 1997, the party’s number of votes fell from 26,997 to 14,076 in 2015, a decline from 60.7 per cent to 35.6 per cent in vote share.
And bar an anomalous 2017 result that saw votes rise to 21,969 and 52.5 per cent of voters in Hartlepool, the trend continued in 2019 when Labour candidate Mike Hill received only 15,464 votes.
Once Hill resigned, the slow rot of Labour in Hartlepool culminated in a first Conservative MP for more than 50 years.
“Hartlepool has been haemorrhaging votes for quite a long time,” says Steve.
“As also seen in Sedgefield, Blyth Valley, Darlington etc, these ‘Red Wall’ towns follow a pattern of structural forces that Labour have failed to fight against.
“There’s an increasing demographic shift in voting behaviour in these areas, where an increasingly older, home-owning population tend to vote Conservative, while younger, university-educated demographics, who are more likely to vote Labour, tend to reside or move to more metropolitan areas.
Steve adds: “Hartlepool fits this pattern of long-term structural forces, whereby the existence of an increasingly ageing, home-owning electorate should beg the question of not why these seats have started voting Conservative, but rather why have they voted Labour for as long as they have?”
For Jonathan Brash, a Labour councillor for Burn Valley ward at Hartlepool Borough Council and deputy leader of Hartlepool Labour Party, this question is instrumental in planning how to win Hartlepool back.
“We need to take a long hard look at ourselves in the mirror and ask ourselves how we can best represent the people of Hartlepool,” he says.
“They are quite rightly desperate for investment in their town: they want good jobs, more money in our town, and more infrastructure projects to re-energise our local economy.
“They decided a Conservative MP was their best bet of achieving this – this is our failing.
Jonathan continues: “We should have done better in highlighting how the Government’s record in the last decade has been very poor for Hartlepool residents.
“Unemployment levels are high, services and police officer services have been cut, alongside a sustained absence of investment.
“Yet the Conservatives have captured the narrative in Hartlepool, talking about the issues people care about on the doorstep, while returning a fraction of the services cut over the last decade as a positive investment story.”
Examples of recent Conservative investment include plans to return passenger rail services to Blyth in 2024 for the first time since 1964, with £34 million of Department for Transport funding, alongside Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen’s successes in securing freeport status for Teesside in March, and taking Durham Tees Valley Airport – now Teesside International Airport – back into public ownership for £40 million in 2019.
Jonathan supports these moves, while claiming discussion over taking the airport into public ownership occurred before the present Tees Valley Mayor took office.
It has also been reported that the planned Blyth Bebside railway station could be axed from the new Northumberland line as part of Department for Transport cutbacks.
Jonathan adds: “We need to park our tanks on their lawn and focus on the issues people actually care about, by relying less on traditional Labour values, such as championing the NHS, and stopping avoiding talking about jobs and local investment.
“A lot of people in politics get wrapped up in analyses such as Brexit’s influence on voters, and in labels such as ‘Remain’, ‘Leave’, ‘left-wing’ or ‘right-wing’.
“But ultimately, that’s not how ordinary people think.
He continues: “Brexit was a pretty seismic moment in British politics, but in ten years’ time, people on the doorstep won’t be talking about Brexit.
“They will be talking about jobs, investment in local services and keeping crime down, just as they are today.
“We cannot shy away from that debate in Hartlepool.
“Labour has got to come up with plans and policies that deliver on jobs and local services.
“If we don’t have policies that are rigorously formulated and believable for what they plan to address, we’re just not going to win in Hartlepool.”
Jonathan and Hartlepool Labour seem to blame themselves for their complacency towards dictating the local political narrative and making local voices feel heard.
But the influence of investment success stories in Conservative-voting North East towns has also had a great effect on Hartlepool, helping to break down decades-entrenched loyalties to voting Labour.
Steve says: “These areas, demographically speaking, share a lot of characteristics with more traditionally Conservative-voting areas, and was perhaps masqueraded by a historical-cultural taboo across the North East against voting Conservative – that to not vote Labour is to betray your people and your roots in the working-class.
“But this taboo has been gradually broken down over the years, as voters have increasingly felt that Labour no longer represents them or their interests.”
Hartlepool has its first Conservative MP in more than 50 years
This is reflected by a 2017 survey of Labour members that found more than half to be graduates and 77 per cent from an ABC1 social group – demographics Steve identifies to be inconsistent with ‘Red Wall’ seats and which drive internal policy discussion toward metropolitan transport and higher education issues instead of those affecting ‘Red Wall’ communities.
“Once this taboo of voting Conservative begins to break down, the cracks in the dam can become a flood,” he says.
“I am increasingly convinced this could be a permanent shift in the UK’s political geography.
“I think the example of Mansfield, a former Labour stronghold, encapsulates this threat – how a slight Conservative majority of just over 1000 votes in 2017 has now become a majority of over 16,000 votes since 2019.
“I predicted in my book that Hartlepool would be one of the ‘Red Wall’ seats to vote Conservative in 2019, but the Brexit Party standing probably saved them.
“That there were around 20 seats where the Brexit Party vote was larger than the Labour majority in 2019 should be of huge concern for Labour.”
From Steve’s analysis and recent election results, it seems Labour’s inertia locally to react to increasing divides between themselves and meeting local voters’ needs has created a vacuum of disengaged voters upon which the Conservatives have capitalized.
“This has largely been achieved through an effective regional populist discourse that manages to both outflank Labour economically to the left, spending more than Corbyn ever promised, while championing culturally conservative values such as being tough on crime,” says Steve.
“Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham has been similarly effective as a regional Labour voice, but in the North East, Labour have failed to take control of this regionalist current, while the Conservatives have.
“As the taboo breaks, the Conservatives will look to consolidate with investment and create a post-Brexit turning point for the region, distancing themselves from Labour’s tendency for, ‘oh isn’t it terrible around here’ negativity in favour of a more consciously positive story of what they are doing for the North East.
“Ben Houchen does this very well, while Labour has failed to follow the example of Andy Burnham, or the SNP in Scotland, by proliferating this regional populist discourse themselves in the North East.”
Jonathan is similarly unequivocal on being more proactive and self-starting in Labour’s vision for the North East’s future.
He says: “We need to empower more local businesses, and less politicians, to be at the heart of local decision-making, to get our councils investing in local contractors rather than cheaper alternatives, and to get more money in local people’s pockets so that they can spend that money locally.
“The Government’s Towns Fund to level up underinvested areas is all well and good, but we need to ensure local investment necessitates long-term, sustained economic growth.
“Ideas such as the North East Fund investment bank are really exciting and innovative – we need more ideas like these in Hartlepool, in order to take control of the levers of our own local economy rather than relying on Westminster subsidies.”
Whether a revitalised response to these losses emerges remains to be seen, but what does seem clear is that Labour finds itself in an increasingly perilous position towards maintaining its longstanding influence across the North East.
In order to push against the creeping tide and win back the seats already lost, a new and engaging response to Conservative gains and investment is of the utmost and immediate priority.