Published 8th May 2021

Reflections on Hartlepool by-election

Sacha Bedding, Chair of Trustees at Community Organisers and the CEO of The Wharton Trust in Hartlepool reflects on the by-election result and why, after decades of Labour Party leadership, the town has swung in favour of the Conservative Party.

“I’m astonished by the scale of Labour’s defeat at the Hartlepool by-election – but the defeat appeared inevitable. I run a community centre based in the Dyke House area of Hartlepool. We work to change the community in the ways that people want to see it change. We do everything from intercepting food from landfill and sharing that out, to challenging reasons that kids are excluded from schools. What’s different about our work is we put people first and we go to the places where they are at. We knock on doors, we listen and our work starts there.

I think Labour lost for a number of reasons – ranging from their focus on identity politics, Brexit, to relatability. They were disastrous in respect of Brexit: sitting on the fence around whether they backed leave or remain and the same again around a second referendum. It pushed people to cut the umbilical cord. Once you’ve made the step of not voting for Labour once, it’s easier to do it again.

Hartlepool voted two Brexit MEPs in the northeast. Mike Hill just managed a victory in 2019 – and that was because the non-Labour vote was split. This should have been a warning. This isn’t a personal critique of Dr Paul Williams, he is a good person and highly experienced medical professional but the constituency Labour Party’s reasons his selection to stand here is beyond me. Particularly when he tried to stop the UK leaving the EU, telling constituents in Stockton he knew better and locally being associated with the removal of services from Hartlepool General Hospital. It’s parochial, but Hartlepool is a parochial place and if he’s not good enough for Stockton, people could now how was he going to be good enough for here.

And that is the problem for Labour – the people of Hartlepool didn’t see how he could represent them.

We have heard from local people how they do not feel listened to by ‘the system’. How for decades they feel unrepresented and on the margins. I talk about the ‘irrelevant class’ to reflect the stories we are hearing and how people feel. The referendum gave people permission to find their voice. It was a grasp at finding some form of personal power in a system where they have been downtrodden for too long – it was a refounding of relevance. Around 70% voted in the referendum, including people who hadn’t voted for decades: it was a cry for change and that for people here in Hartlepool there’s a sense that the only reason any conversations about ‘levelling up’ are happening is because of Brexit.

The people of Hartlepool are good people. They won’t be hoodwinked, they’re not stupid.  They are not the labels that were given to them from those on the outside; Thick, racist, turkeys voting for Christmas. If you keep calling people these things, they’re going to walk away. Voting is an emotional thing, it’s not necessarily logical: and the left has shown little emotional intelligence.

Most people here are just trying to make ends meet – the concerns and social movements of identity struggle to get traction. When a town is 98% white, an image like Kier Starmer “taking the knee” doesn’t carry. Most people don’t feel they need to show they’re not racist. BLM can sound to people like ‘your lives don’t matter’: and that’s supported and reinforced by the evidence of economic policy over the decades.

GP’s here talk about ‘shit life syndrome’ – and that impacts on so many areas of life. If you’ve had a Labour MP and council for many years, and life’s still a bit ‘shit’ then you’re ready for change. People look around and see the degradation in the fabric of the town: the hospital is a shell of its former self, the custody suite is closed, the magistrates court has moved to Middlesbrough and haven’t necessarily linked that with 10 years of Conservative rule. The Conservatives under Johnson have talked about making your life matter – they have pushed the levelling up agenda and are talking about bringing money in to the area, £70m coming in to Redcar, and in Darlington, they’re going to have the Treasury of the North. All of a sudden people feel valued again.

The things that get Westminster and journalists excited don’t matter in the same way; Downing Street flat renovations, PPE procurement aren’t talking points and if they are, they are forgivable. What does matter is the rhetoric from politicians – People here have aspirations for themselves and for their families and the rhetoric that we can make life just that bit better for you is important. ‘For the many not the few’ doesn’t work when people aspire to be part of the few and are respected for doing well.

And as shallow as it is, despite the stories we hear from local people about the faults of Boris Johnson, he is far more relatable than Keir Starmer.

I think if Labour is to stand any chance of winning back votes here, it needs to start genuinely listening. Almost saying nothing. Just go out and listen, on a one-to-one basis if you have to. And ask the question: “what is it we need to do to make us relevant in your life again?” And I doubt it will be around some of the big issues that they’re currently focussing on: people in Hartlepool won’t talk about identity. It’s: “I want the best opportunities for me and my kids.”

And that’s where Labour needs to start – back at the grassroots, in the places where they traditionally held power. From here they need to let the agenda emerge and give people the voice that they need to feel relevant and valued again.  This might, just might, give them the chance to renew their relationships with heritage supporters and connect with the 6 in 10 people who didn’t feel that anybody on the long lists of candidates was worthy of their vote.”



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