With a recent poll putting them in third place in the Hartlepool by-election, the Northern Independence Party (NIP) is likely still some way from sending an MP to Westminster.
But having launched during the pandemic and with those limitations on organising, the party has found a credible candidate and hastily pulled together a working campaign.
To some they are a bit of a joke, and not a particularly good one, but beyond their acerbic and irreverent tone on social media, the NIP is serious about the north-south divide.
And that’s an issue which, according to Thelma Walker, the NIP’s unofficial candidate in the Hartlepool by-election, cuts across the traditional left-right political spectrum.
Not yet officially registered with the Electoral Commission, the party is unable to officially stand a candidate, but Walker, a former Labour MP for Colne Valley in West Yorkshire, was selected by the party’s membership to represent them as an independent.
‘A shockwave across the country’
Speaking to NationalWorld on the Seaton Carew beachfront on a bright morning, Walker is quietly optimistic about the party’s future.
“When I saw the polling which puts us in third ahead of the Greens and Lib-Dems, I thought ‘wow’.
“I think there could be some surprises on May 6th, but even if we came third ahead of established Westminster parties as a brand new party without all the machinery and the financial backing, then I think it would send a shockwave across the country.”
Walker is a former headteacher who served as a Labour MP from 2017 to 2019, but left the party since Sir Keir Starmer took over last year. She is reflective about her time in Westminster, and her former party.
“I think the main parties, and probably Labour in particular, have taken northern voters for granted and that’s why they bombed in some ‘red wall’ seats.
“I’ve met a lot of people in Hartlepool, and one thing that unites them all is that they all have a mind of their own, they will go with what they understand is the best option for their community.
“They’re very proud of their place, and the north, and that sense of community.”
‘Standing up for democratic socialism’
Many people in Hartlepool say they want to see someone from the area represent them in parliament but like the Labour and Conservative candidates - Walker doesn’t come from the area.
She said: “I’ve been very honest about not being a local person, I’ve spent time here, but I’m not going to try and lie about my local credentials, not least because people here are too smart for that.
“They see straight through that kind of thing. What I am doing is standing up for democratic socialism and the best for local people here, as I would anywhere else.”
As a fledgling new party, one of the main difficulties for the NIP has been getting their name and message out there, particularly in a crowded field of 16 candidates.
But Walker thinks things are going well. Responding to the latest Survation poll which has them on 6%, party activists insist that they will do even better than that, as the fieldwork was done prior to a lot of campaigning on the ground.
‘Experience is a big thing’
Asked whether voters here are aware of her new party and what it has to offer, Walker admits that they have taken “baby steps” in building the party’s profile.
As a former MP who is standing for a brand new party with a clear anti-establishment message, Walker hopes that she’s able to get past many voters’ concerns about smaller party candidates being less equipped to represent them in parliament.
“I do have experience, and that experience is a big thing, it means I can hit the ground running as an MP if elected to represent Hartlepool in Westminster,” she said.
But would an upstart party like NIP be able to make a difference in the halls of power with one MP?
“Look through history; individuals in politics have been able to achieve a lot of great things. The Dalai Lama said ‘If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.’
“I think one person can change an awful lot.”
While the NIP’s ostensible goal is to advocate for the North of England to leave the UK, in practice they hope to win power in a few seats and force the Westminster establishment to take the north-south divide more seriously.
Policy-wise, the party has some ideas on how to tackle the issue, with a Universal Basic Income (UBI) one of Walker’s top priorities if elected.
She said: “UBI would change so many people’s lives here in Hartlepool, especially after the pandemic. It may need piloting, it might not be a perfect model as it is, but it would help to end queues at those foodbanks, it would help to end that anxiety in the community.
“It would provide that safety net. And taken alongside free school meals for every child, those two policies could transform people’s lives post-pandemic.”
‘I believe in what we’re doing’
Some commentators, and many within the Labour party, see the NIP as being destined to do little more than split the progressive vote and let in the Conservatives, intentionally or not.
Many have already written them off as a novelty, or the overspill from one of the Labour party’s many intercine battles.
But Walker says the party is set on affecting change, and they’re aiming high.
“This isn’t a career move for me, I’ve put myself out there and I’ve had to be tough; you can imagine the comment and criticisms I’ve had from some in Labour. I’ve had some pretty serious trolling.
“But I believe in what I’m doing, I believe in what we’re doing, and I believe that history will see we were on the right side. But right now, we’ve still got child poverty, we’ve still got reliance on foodbanks, we’ve still got gross inequality; and people need to speak up about that.
“That’s why I’m here and that’s what I’m doing.”
For more coverage from Hartlepool, follow Ethan Shone on Twitter.
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