At one time in the not too distant past, being selected as the Labour candidate in Hartlepool would have been as close to a surefire win as a prospective parliamentarian could hope for.
But things change, and now Paul Williams, a GP and former MP for the nearby Stockton South constituency, is having to fight hard for the seat, and nothing is being taken for granted.
The pollsters are currently predicting that Jill Mortimer, a Conservative councillor from Thirsk in North Yorkshire, will become Hartlepool’s first Tory MP in more than 50 years after this week’s by-election.
If the most recent polling is to be believed she’ll cruise it, with Survation’s latest survey showing a 13 point lead for the Tories. If borne out, it could be the biggest single electoral shock in modern political history.
‘A positive life experience’
But speaking to NationalWorld on a cold wet day outside the town’s civic centre, Williams’ spirits seem high. He says he has enjoyed the campaign, describing it as a “positive life experience” after a difficult winter on the frontline of the fight against Covid.
“I’ve been doing NHS work all winter,” he said. “Six or seven days a week I’ve been doing a Covid clinic during the day, and then generally a shift in the evening as well. So this feels like a different world, I’m outside all day and I’m speaking to different people. Not even the weather can get me down.”
Some have suggested that an expected poor showing for Labour in Hartlepool could be down to the limitations imposed upon the campaign by Covid, but Williams says that he’s been able to campaign effectively, albeit with some Covid-safe tweaks.
“We’ve been out on the doorsteps with teams of people every single day. I wear a face-covering, and we don’t go out in groups of more than six people, but otherwise we’ve been able to do everything we usually would.”
“We wondered initially whether people might be a bit reticent, but they’re not, they’re happy to chat. And people have been much more positive about Labour than I had expected. I was thinking there’d be anger about… in the past I’ve had doors open and people say things like ‘not while Corbyn’s your leader’ but there hasn’t been any of that.”
That said, the growing support for the Conservatives is evident, not least to a candidate who has been knocking on doors and having “frank conversations” with voters every day for the past month or so.
What’s driving that? Williams says it’s a pretty complex question. One of Labour’s problems in this area is that despite being now more than a decade in opposition, many people in Hartlepool still feel that the party has its fair share of the blame for the problems that exist here because of the MPs and council, which was led by Labour for some time. But for Williams, this blame is partly misplaced.
“Part of this is that the local Labour council hasn’t always done the best possible job for the town. There have been people who perhaps have been in politics for the wrong reasons. That’s damaged some of the trust between the electorate and Labour.
“But there’s a bigger answer, that actually, despite a lot of anti-Labour marketing from the Tories, they’re in power in the council, the combined authority and the country.
“Everyone agrees with the analysis of what needs changing and what’s happened here in Hartlepool. We’ve been left behind, we’ve been ignored, we’ve lost hospital services and police services and jobs.
“The political argument is who is to blame for that? We believe that is the Tories, who seem to have only just woken up to the fact that Hartlepool exists. And we want voters to decide who’s best placed to do something about it in the future, is it a farmer from Thirsk, or is it a local doctor who’s done positive things for Hartlepool in the past and has a positive plan for the future?”
‘A protection racket’
Some have suggested that “pork barrel politics” could be playing a part in the Tories’ support, with voters having already seen the tangible benefits that a Conservative in a position of power can have on an area, through Ben Houchen’s time as Tyne Tees mayor.
Williams acknowledges that this is a factor, but he has a dim view of this as an electoral tactic. Pulling no punches, he says: “that’s not politics, it’s a protection racket”.
But step into the shoes of the average voter who just wants to see their town improve, and it’s not hard to see the appeal of voting Conservative if you think a Conservative MP is more likely to be able to attract funding and support from central government.
Can Labour really offer anything against this, particularly being so far from entering government?
“The Tories have had 11 years of opportunity to do something about this. And in those 11 years, they’ve neglected this town. It makes no sense to do more of the same when you’re seeing them cutting budgets as they have.
“Everyone can see what they’ve done to this town. And what people don’t want is a protection racket, effectively saying ‘the only way you’re going to get this back is by voting Tory’.
“The other part of that is, if places are getting handouts, they are dwarfed in terms of the cuts that the Tories have made.
“They’ve taken millions and millions of pounds out of this economy, resulting in the highest council tax in the country, crime spiralling, NHS waiting lists out of control. Then they’re offering a few crumbs to make up for it.
“It’s like they’ve stolen your TV, given you the remote back and now they expect you to say thank you.”
‘Jobs, jobs jobs’
National issues and Westminster politics will factor in people’s considerations on Thursday, not least the much-heralded vaccine bounce and this government being the one which ‘Got Brexit Done’, but Williams is keen to emphasise the local issues.
He says what voters care about, and what will be his number one priority if elected, is “Jobs, jobs, jobs”.
“Jobs are key, I’m saying I’ll do whatever it takes to save jobs at Liberty Steel. We’ve also committed to a nuclear future, because this is a nuclear town but the plant is reaching the end of its natural life. But it’s also the little things, so I’ll be running an annual jobs fair and trying to bring young people, the local colleges and employers together.
“There’s also the hospital. I’ve led on the opening of an urgent care centre in the town after we lost the A&E because of the Tories in 2011. People can see that I know what I’m doing on that, and I have the expertise as well as the will to get things done.”
Labour back on speaking terms with The Sun?
Under Sir Keir Starmer, Labour has been at pains to show it is a very different party to the one which Jeremy Corbyn led. One example of this is that prior to NationalWorld’s interview slot with Williams, he has a long chat with a journalist from The Sun.
The party has had a tumultuous relationship with the paper, due to The Sun’s reporting on the Hillsborough disaster, and has at various points boycotted it entirely, refusing to give interviews or comment.
While campaigning for the Labour leadership, Sir Keir famously said he wouldn’t speak to the paper, but later rowed back slightly to say he might do, if elected leader.Asked whether his chat with the divisive red-top has been cleared with the party leadership, Williams laughs nervously. He gestures up toward the grey, rainy sky and quips: “They asked me if I wanted the sun, so I said yes!”
For more coverage from Hartlepool, follow Ethan Shone on Twitter.
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