Hartlepool is a battleground for Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer - but don't believe everything you see on TV

In years gone by, a Conservative MP for Hartlepool would have been unthinkable. Ahead of the hotly contested by-election, Mark Thompson, a former Hartlepool Mail reporter, explains what’s changed in the area

Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer both have their eyes on Hartlepool (Graphic: James Trembath)

Hartlepool is an unlikely battleground. Sandwiched between the thrashing waves of the North Sea and the snaking, dull tarmac of the A19, it can appear somewhat isolated from the rest of the North East, never mind the UK. It is a headland off our coast that homes 90,000 people, many of whom were born and raised in the town.

From the majority of national coverage, you would think it has been a literal battleground and not just a political one. London-based journalists will be taking it in turns to come up and highlight the rundown houses, empty shops, angry residents... you could play a game of deprivation bingo while watching the TV news. You'll also get constant references to the locals hanging a monkey, the club's mascot becoming mayor and the odd mention of Sky Sports presenter Jeff Stelling as a much-loved son of the town.

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You might not see the National Museum of the Royal Navy with the fantastic HMS Trincomalee, the modern and ambitious Northern School of Art, the amazing beaches and countryside, the marina full of expensive boats and the impressive homes in the West Park area of the town.

I lived and worked in Hartlepool as a journalist and I know my way around all of the terraced-street clichés that small towns in the North are often burdened with. I was a crime reporter treading the town's pavements for the ever-present Hartlepool Mail, so I can definitely say I've seen the place at its very worst. I can also say I witnessed more of it at its very best.

This is a proud town that has community at its very heart. Not the corporate 'we're all one big community' PR that many towns roll-out to attract new home buyers and investors but people genuinely helping and caring for each other, from huge fundraising drives to simple gestures.

There is a reason people often refer to it as England's biggest village. Some of this is out of necessity as funding to the town has been constantly slashed. The hospital is a shell of what it was, the court has moved down the A19 to Middlesbrough, council funding has been consistently cut and universal credit has heavily impacted many residents.

So while I argue that Hartlepool is no sleepy backwater in decline, it is not without its problems that are often money related at a time of Conservative government. That brings us to austerity and why it would seem bizarre that the town appears to be genuinely considering voting in a Tory MP for the first time in my lifetime this May. This is the same party that many people blame for the lack of money over the years and annual cuts following the financial crisis.

Yet residents are looking at other recently won Conservative-won seats in the North of England and the investment that has followed. Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen, a fast-rising Conservative politician, has had great success in other parts of the region with a freeport for the Tees, rejuvenating the local airport and bringing treasury jobs to Darlington. They can look up the A19 towards Blyth with its plans for a 'gigafactory' and the jobs it will bring.

Can Hartlepool get a bigger slice of that pie? Mr Houchen has already helped bring in a new TV studio to the town.

Hartlepool has the key fundamentals in place for investment with new housing, great centres of education, a striking location and a strong workforce. Now it needs large companies to come in to create more opportunities and to stop the 'brain drain' of young people leaving the area for work.

Is Keir Starmer or Boris Johnson the most likely to succeed on that front? It's a conversation that will be heating up in the packed beer gardens around the town.

Hartlepool could be seen as a microcosm of a moving political landscape in the UK that is more about jobs, opportunities and fairness than old loyalties and traditional values. Does it matter what rosette the MP wears as long as they provide for a better place to live and work? Why do the safe Conservative seats in the south have lower council tax but a better quality of life? 'Powering up the North' may already seem a tired soundbite but it is what people expect this Government to deliver - and quickly.

For decades, the communities of Hartlepool marked a cross next to Labour with their pencils because that was the best option in a town of loyal and dedicated workers often doing manual jobs, but perhaps that is no longer the case.

The people of Hartlepool want more and they are rightly impatient. A Conservative MP representing Hartlepool for the first time since the 1960s would still be a surprise but it is not impossible and it would definitely be understandable.

Mark Thompson is Editor of JPI Media Online

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