Gavin Rice: Local pride flourishes in Hartlepool – for all the damage wrought on residents’ lives and livelihoods.

5 May

Gavin Rice is Head of the Work and Welfare Policy Unit at the Centre for Social Justice.

The Conservative are pursuing a clear tactic of expectation management with regard to the hotly anticipated by-election in Hartlepool, with the Prime Minister reminding activists of “the psephological reality [that] it’s a massive, massive challenge.”

Unseating Labour would require a 4.4 per cent national swing towards the government during the middle of a Parliament – which would be very unusual. Yet this week’s extraordinary poll by Survation, however, which gave the Tories a 17-point lead, is clear sign there is yet all to play for, and that a win may still be on the cards in this seat in the heart of the Red Wall – a win that could spell the death knell of Labour’s “Hampstead and Hartlepool” coalition once and for all.

The County Durham constituency voted for Brexit by a majority of over 69 per cent  – the highest of anywhere in the UK. The Brexit Party’s Richard Tice took 25.8 per cent of the vote in 2019, with most analysts agreeing this came primarily at the expense of the Tories rather than from Labour; it’s unlikely Tice’s continuity outfit, Reform UK, will perform similarly.

If Hartlepool turned blue it would be a shock, but it would signal the continuation of a trend set by the likes of nearby Sedgefield and Bishop Auckland. While Labour has dominated in general elections but much less so in local government; its last spell of control over the borough was from 2010-19, and the council is currently Conservative-led.

Hartlepool is working-class, Lord Mandelson’s previous incumbency notwithstanding. The town itself represents most of the constituency, with some outlying suburbs and villages. It lies on the North Sea coast, 10 miles from the Tees estuary, and was formerly a major exporter of County Durham coal. It used to build ships, too, including the world’s second oil tanker, completed in 1886; it was once considered sufficiently important that it was the first part of the UK to be attacked by German ships during World War I.

With the passage of decades and the tide of deindustrialistion the industries that once sustained Hartlepool gradually disappeared, with the last ship yards closing in 1961. During the 1980s, Hartlepudlians endured unemployment rates of 30 per cent; 630 jobs were lost with British Steel in 1983, followed by thousands more as industrial decline was completed.

Unemployment remains a serious problem – the constituency currently has a Claimant Count of eleven per cent, nearly 30 per cent above the current UK average. A shocking 26 per cent of households are workless, with local demand for labour far below the national average. Only 55 per cent have a Level 3 qualification (A-level or above), and only a third have some form of higher education.

According to the director of a local charity speaking to the Centre for Social Justicde, the town has never recovered from the disappearance of local manufacturing, with many now consigned to working in call centres or other unstable, low-skilled work, with many on zero-hours contracts.

There was a fair amount of local investment under New Labour but this was stopped under the Coalition government, with the onset of austerity.  The town has high levels of mental illness and depression, with many unfit for work: the disappearance of a local supply of jobs has driven this epidemic, precipitating a vicious cycle of worklessness.

“Working gives you a purpose – a reason to get out of bed. If you haven’t got that purpose, what have you got in your life?”, he said. There are many families dependent on benefits with little to no aspiration; those that want something better tend to depart for Leeds.

With the decline of manufacturing one of the biggest employers now is the local NHS hospital – this follows a pattern of public sector replacement of private sector jobs that is common throughout post-industrial regions. Another significant proportion of Hartlepool workers are employed in hospitality and catering sectors.

Hartlepool also experiences serious social problems. The charity director reports a close correlation between unemployment and drug addiction, adding with irony: “we have the cheapest drugs in the country by far”.

Health figures bear this out:  Hartlepool has one of the highest rates of drug-related deaths in the country, with 46 fatal poisonings recorded between 2015 and 2017, far in excess of the British average. There are high rates of crime and anti-social behaviour, with further problems caused by reoffending on the part of Hartlepool’s resettled prison population.

Family breakdown is another major challenge, and his charity, which deals with homelessness and job support for the unemployed, has found that many in need of a roof over their heads have been made homeless due to a broken home. Data from the Healthy Relationships Partnership confirms the high level of relationship break-up in Hartlepool, reporting that of the children taken into care, in 80-90 per cent of cases involving abuse or neglect parental separation lay behind it.

Urban decay and low-quality housing remain an endemic problem, though there are more affluent private housing estates on the outskirts; improving housing is a high priority for Hartlepool voters, second only to a wider availability of stable, good quality jobs. The deterioration in the physical environment serves as a visual representation of the town’s economic decline.

Hartlepudlians do, however, retain a strong sense of local pride and attachment to their community. There is a desire for prosperity to return, rather than just opportunities to ship out. Data from a CSJ survey shows that residents of Hartlepool, like with many similar post-industrial constituencies, report high levels of community strength (measured by sense of security, interconnectedness and heritage) coexisting alongside high levels of material deprivation. Interestingly, this sense of community strength has not been undermined by Hartlepool’s high levels of social breakdown.

The Conservatives must anticipate further losses in the South if Britain’s political realignment along new tribal lines is set to continue – and a Tory win in Hartlepool would be a strong indicator that it will. Economically left-behind places with a strong local identity, regional pride and an attachment to place are precisely where the party must prove itself.

Hartlepool’s voters have been alienated by a southern, Remain-supporting Labour leadership, with local residents lamenting Labour’s metamorphosis from a party of the industrial working class into one led by an anti-Brexit lawyer from London. The Tories should provide a foil for this metropolitan shift, embracing instead a new politics of place.

On Brexit and on the social value of community the Tories should be Hartlepudlians’ natural home, but they are crying out for an economic transformation that restores prosperity and dignity to a constituency experiencing serious social decline. This decline has not eroded residents’ pride – only their environment and their livelihoods. Hartlepool is ripe for a fresh injection of hope. The Conservatives need Hartlepudlians’ votes: the government must deliver radical policies to effect regional regeneration, and make something truly meaningful out of the promise of levelling-up, if the party is to earn that vote.

Gavin Rice: The Conservative campaign in Hartlepool kicks off today. But will Johnson deliver for his new working class voters?

29 Mar

Gavin Rice is Head of the Work and Welfare Policy Unit at the Centre for Social Justice.

All eyes are now on Hartlepool, with the first by-election poll showing Labour’s lead down to just three per cent.  The Conservative campaign opens today: whether the party can flip the seat, which hasn’t voted for a Tory candidate in six decades, is being viewed widely as a litmus test for the strength and permanence of the party’s 2019 incursion into the North East and West.

There is a lot to live up to. After thousands of voters overcame multi-generational hatred for the Tories to “lend” Boris Johnson their vote, the Prime Minister made a solemn commitment to govern in their interests, saying: “I will repay your trust”.

It’s now imperative that the Conservatives do repay it, and are seen to do so. This will involve giving priority to concrete remedies to the poverty that for many Red Wall voters has become a fact of life.

The Centre for Social Justice has compiled a list of 205 deprived towns, using the Index of Multiple Deprivation, as an indicator of Britain’s communities most in need of “levelling up”. We have also mapped them electorally by parliamentary constituency.

The results are revealing. No fewer than 38 of the constituencies containing deprived towns are 2019 Conservative gains – all in the Midlands, North East and North West. All of them are marginal, meaning the government’s stake in making a real difference in these places is electoral as well as moral.

Many more are narrow Labour holds such as Hartlepool, again in the Red Wall. It’s generally accepted the Conservatives have long-term problems in London, the cities, spa towns and middle-class suburbia. They will need more working-class seats in former Labour territory to offset these losses. There are positive signs, with the party taking a 25-point lead among working-class voters, but also policy choices that are much more concerning.

The recent decision by the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) to “call in” the planning application to open a coalmine at Whitehaven in Copeland constituency is astonishing if it indicates where the Tories’ hearts lie.

Such decisions are normally made by the local authority, and the Secretary of State, Robert Jenrick, initially pledged not to intervene. He later U-turned, however, taking the decision out of Copeland County Council’s hands and returning it to central government. After an outcry from the likes of Greenpeace, the project has been earmarked for a public inquiry and kicked into the long grass.

The decision – taken in reality, no doubt, by Number Ten – looks shamelessly political, prioritising green optics over Northern livelihoods – the very opposite of what Johnson should be doing. But clearly 500 or more well-paid jobs in Whitehaven cannot compete with the fact that Britain is hosting COP26 in November, when a brand new coalmine (the first in 30 years) could present plenty of opportunities for media embarrassment. The decision also came – rather suspiciously – three days after the visit to the UK of John Kerry, the US’s replacement for Al Gore as chief climate guru.

Refusing to open a commercially viable new mine seems extremely ham-fisted, given the lost opportunity and disappointment this will cause to exactly the constituents the Conservatives need to be defending – and, yes, Whitehaven is one of CSJ’s “205”. Not so long ago the party was pursuing an explicit Cumbria strategy; the Whitehaven decision seems a long way from there.

Given what could be at stake, there has been no regard for trade-offs. Mark Jenkinson, the MP for Workington (another former mining constituency), has argued that producing coking coal domestically could even cut emissions by eliminating the need to ship to Britain from around the world, meaning the carbon footprint – if any – would be minimal. In contrast, the local and symbolic impact of saying “No” to Whitehaven is enormous.

The Conservatives do not enjoy a good legacy in the North when it comes to closing mines. The way the closure of the pits was handled, and the tragic social aftermath in which two generations were consigned to unemployment, has left a lasting scar. Even John Major has admitted that the party “got it wrong”. But at least Thatcher’s closures were motivated by economic reality. This time it’s about displaying green credentials for perceived political gain.

Whether this is in fact a political gain should be reconsidered, fast. The Red Wall absolutely cannot be taken for granted: a 2020 Channel 4 poll of voters in 45 Red Wall seats found that 16 per cent of 2019 Conservative voters didn’t know which way they would vote now, with seven per cent saying they will definitely go back to Labour. Indeed, Labour took a Red Wall poll lead in December. Given how marginal these seats are, these are numbers that should cause unease in CCHQ.

Painting a picture of local stagnation George Bell, a veteran of the National Union of Mineworkers, said that in Worksop, which switched to the Tories for the first time since 1929: “a lot of [the work] is low-paid, non-unionised work…the electricians, brick works, timber yards and other industries that used to service the mines are all long gone”.

These are the communities the Conservatives need to win and hold. Their top 20 targets for 2024 are almost all in the Red Wall. These include Wansbeck, Hemsworth, Normanton Pontefract and Castleford, Chesterfield (Tony Benn’s former constituency), and Oldham East and Saddleworth. In each of these the Conservatives only need a small swing. Every one is in or near former mining country.

The Government must accept that chasing a green-only economic agenda at breakneck speed is a policy that sits in clear tension with the solemn commitment to regenerate Britain’s post-industrial regions. Net zero and levelling up are competing objectives. This is a contradiction within the party’s thinking, and the sooner there is honesty about it, the better.

Unfortunately, this policy clash speaks to a deeper cultural divide within the party between Cameroons and the new Boris consensus. David Cameron did incredible things for the party, making it electable again after 13 wilderness years. But his electoral strategy – chasing middle-class votes, parading environmentalist credentials (“Vote Blue, Go Green”), and taking the fight to the Liberal Democrats in England’s leafy suburbs, ultimately resulted in Coalition. In 2015 he pulled off a majority, but one much smaller than Johnson did when the Red Wall fell.

Cameron’s autobiography, “For the Record”, makes plain that the former leader remains convinced of the merits of what he calls the “centre ground”, with social liberalism and climate change its core priorities. This Westminster centre – as research shows – is in fact not the centre ground of British voters at all.

Whitehaven may seem like a local issue, and indeed it should have been. Whitehall’s intervention has made this a national question, revealing a deeper existential conflict within the Conservative Party. Is it the party of bourgeois ideological preoccupations, or of British workers? Were our former mining communities right to place their trust in the party? A good signal of the true answer to this lies in whether they open this mine. Let’s hope Johnson doesn’t let his new voters down.