On those rare occasions when the football season is a two-horse race, it’s often a case of who’ll blink first; one of the two teams chasing the title bottles it at the eleventh hour and the other ends up being crowned champions. Is this because the winner is the better side or because the loser blew it on the last lap? The record books simply record who won and who didn’t, though it may be said at the moment of the final whistle that the champions didn’t win the title so much as the runners-up lost it. Should the SNP remain in power north of the border or Sadiq Khan retain his regime south of Watford this week, would it be fair to say neither won but the competition lost? The Conservative Party under Boris Johnson seems capable of every cock-up imaginable without fear of being thrown out of office, for a weak alternative to a weak Government will inevitably result in the continuation of the incumbent party, however much of a mess it has presided over. Similarly, the first real post-pandemic test of the electorate across the country tomorrow will see local, mayoral and devolved administration elections take place that may well end with parties and individuals worthy of being booted out simply staying where they are because the alternative was even worse.
Amidst the regional nature of the so-called (permission granted to cringe) ‘Super Thursday’, there will also be an election affecting the national picture courtesy of a by-election in a Red Wall seat. It’s in Hartlepool. Yes, Hartlepool, where the people infamously strung-up a monkey during the Napoleonic Wars because they were convinced the poor primate was a French spy. As is so often the case with small towns struggling for claims to fame, this bizarre legend has to a degree put Hartlepool on the map and its local football and rugby teams have adopted the monkey as mascot and logo respectively. Even stranger is the fact that a man dressed in simian costume going by the name of H’angus the Monkey stood in the town’s mayoral elections in 2002, with free bananas for Hartlepudlian school-kids key to his manifesto; against all odds, he won – and was re-elected by a landslide three years later. By the time he was in office, H’angus had reverted to his real name of Stuart Drummond, though Hartlepool is now nationally known as somewhere that once executed and then later elected a monkey.
As far as I know, no monkey is standing in 2021, but the town that was home to Brian Clough’s first faltering steps into football management could well provide the match of the day tomorrow. Hartlepool was a classic northern Labour stronghold for decades, supplying the town’s MP in every General Election since 1964, yet like so many Red Wall areas in England the 2016 EU Referendum proved to be a watershed for this unchallenged dominance. The North-East was broken down into 12 voting areas in 2016, and of the 12 only the region’s one big metropolitan city – Newcastle – followed all the other big metropolitan cities in the country by voting Remain; the rest of the North-East more accurately reflected the indigenous mood by voting Leave. Hartlepool did so with a margin of 69.6%, the highest margin in the entire North-East area. We may be five years removed from that resounding finger gesticulating in the direction of the political class of Westminster, but it’s fair to say subsequent events have not turned the electorate back towards the Remain-friendly Labour Party.
A Parliamentary constituency that was once in the hands of Peter Mandelson just about remained Labour-held at the 2019 General Election, though with a dramatically reduced majority from 2017 (3,595) as the Brexit Party grabbed 25% of the vote; and Mike Hill, the man who retained it stood down in March this year, prompting tomorrow’s by-election. Hill resigned his seat in the wake of allegations of sexual harassment and victimisation, something that caused his temporary suspension from the Party in 2019 and something for which he will face an employment tribunal later in the year. It has not been an auspicious exit, yet perhaps reflects the low standing in which Labour is now held in the region. Paul Williams, the Party’s man hoping to succeed Hill, is faced with pre-election polling claiming less than 40% of those who voted for Labour in 2019 will do so again this time round. Neighbouring traditional Labour councils in Durham and Sunderland also appear under threat at a time when the Tories at a national level have hardly endeared themselves to the public; that Labour is struggling to regain ground lost in 2019 even after the bungled handling of the pandemic by the opposition demonstrates just how much the Party has summarily failed to address its dwindling working-class support in areas it could once win with its eyes closed.
Hartlepool is the kind of dyed-in-the-wool Labour seat that might have once fallen to the Lib Dems if it was ever going to fall to anyone – though the one-time ‘protest vote’ party has paid the price for throwing its lot in with metropolitan minority interest Identity Politics even more than Labour, so we now have the once-unthinkable situation where the Tories are the credible alternative to North-East traditions. Keir Starmer may have tried to address the anti-Semitic legacy of the Corbyn/Momentum era of the Party, but the leader’s rush to take the knee for BLM, his perceived dithering over Covid, and his support for endless lockdowns hasn’t exactly won back the working-class vote that has been deserting Labour for decades as the leadership has taken it for granted; one would think the disastrous example of Scotland would have alerted Labour to what was going on in its northern backyard, but whilst Trans-rights and gender pronouns have been preoccupying those gathered round the dinner-party tables of Islington, those who loyally stuck with Labour until roundabout Blair’s second term have been abandoning the Party as swiftly as the Party itself has abandoned them for first-world problems that don’t mean a jot when you’re forced to claim Universal Credit in Hartlepool.
Six of the neighbouring North-East constituencies to Hartlepool fell to the Tories in 2019, and morale amongst the ground-force foot-sloggers entrusted with door-stepping floating voters and trying to persuade them to come home to a party that appears to view them with barely-concealed contempt hasn’t been helped by the realisation that cost-cutting measures will result in around 90 clipboard-carrying party activists being made redundant the day after polling day. Rather than winning voters round with convincing promises of what Labour will do for them if returned to power, the party reeks of desperation unprecedented in one that should be way ahead in the polls after more than a decade of Tory rule in one shape or another. The Batley and Spen Labour MP Tracy Brabin – holder of the constituency once held by Jo Cox – has only just been cleared of allegations accusing her of bribing the electorate with brownies during campaigning for the utterly meaningless post of Mayor of West Yorkshire; regardless of the fact the last thing such a region requires is another layer of bureaucratic local government, the actions of Brabin – whether legal or not – make Labour look cheap, like a budget supermarket laden with BOGOF offers on every aisle.
Keir Starmer is already attempting to pre-empt the expected loss of Hartlepool as well as a sizeable chunk of local government control north of Watford Gap by claiming Labour’s ‘recovery’ will take more time, playing down Party hopes ahead of ‘Super Thursday’; nothing quite like encouragement from the leadership to generate confidence, is there? But at least one could say Starmer is being realistic; if Hartlepool is added to the lengthy list of Labour’s one-time heavy-industry heartlands that now constitute the backbone of Boris Johnson’s 80-strong majority, few will be entirely surprised. Indeed, I suspect those who formulate Labour policy a long way from the land harried by William the Conqueror almost a thousand years ago couldn’t give a monkey’s.
© The Editor