May elections special

Hartlepool: the last leg

Hartlepool Marina
Photo by Steve Daniels from creative commons

They’re on the final stretch. The official list of runners and riders for the Hartlepool local election and parliamentary by-election on 6 May is published.

Hartlepool Council is unique this time round because, unlike other unitary authorities, all 36 council seats and not just one-third, are up for election, due to changes made by the Boundary Commission. That includes an extra three positions in a new ward.  

Who will win the local mandate is anyone’s guess, with the voters’ history of returning non-aligned candidates. (The town’s first and only Mayor, Hartlepool FC mascot H’Angus the Monkey, served three terms).  On the list of 110 contenders, 32 are Independents.

Although some are more independent than others. Since 2019 the town has been under the control of a right-wing coalition led by the Independent Union (IU) and including the few Conservative councillors and one representative of the Veterans and Peoples Party.

The five founding IU councillors mostly began their political lives in UKIP, later switching to The Independent Group, then in a tactical move to capitalise on splits in the ruling Labour Group, formed the Independent Union (IU). They later defected en masse to the Brexit Party and subsequently returned to the IU.

The coalition formed the largest group with 11 councillors in May 2019, six short of control but with Council votes shored up by other, non-IU, Independents.

Shane Moore has been Leader of the Council since May 2019. Formerly Branch Chair of Hartlepool Conservatives, Moore became a Independent councillor in 2016 before joining UKIP and ending up as IU.

In a town with three Tory councillors, the Deputy Leader is a Conservative.

In February this year IU chair John Tennant became the first councillor in Britain to join Nigel Farage’s Reform UK, the renamed Brexit Party. Tennant was also a Brexit MEP in the dying days of a British presence in the European Parliament. His paid jobs in Council and European Parliament filings have been for a UKIP MEP as well as the Brexit and Reform UK parties.

None of Tennant’s IU council colleagues followed him into the Reform UK camp, but the election line-up includes nine new Reform UK contenders.

The former Labour Leader Chris Akers Belcher, who had quit the party after losing a vote of no confidence, had led his group of four into the Socialist Labour Party founded by Arthur Scargill. Akers Belcher and two others have retired; one stands for re-election.

A new band of mostly Labour emigrés has emerged, led by Paddy Brown, a former Labour Leader. But after announcing themselves to the press as the ‘non political’ Hartlepool People’s Party they did not register with the Electoral Commission and are now standing as eight individual Independents.

A couple of Labour politicians have retired, leaving Labour Group Leader and former teacher Brenda Harrison to stand again with her three remaining colleagues plus 27 new entrants to the fray.

A move on the extreme right comes from the For Britain Movement party, set up by anti-Islam activist Anne Marie Waters after she lost the UKIP leadership election in 2017. (Waters also founded the Islamophobic Pegida UK with Tommy Robinson aka Stephen Lennon.) 

Karen King of For Britain won a Hartlepool Council seat in 2019. Last year Waters moved up to Hartlepool to qualify as a local candidate and she is standing in De Bruce ward with King. They are joined by a third member. Her Facebook page displays photos of them with six supporters posing around town brandishing two trident-emblazoned banners and a Union Jack.

The local election campaign, however critical locally, has been drowned out by the snap parliamentary by-election called after Labour MP Mike Hill’s abrupt departure following a sexual harassment allegation.

From a crowded field of 16 hopefuls, the by-election is a two-horse race between Labour and Conservative. Speculation about the also-rans is only on how far they can split the vote.

Standing for Labour is Dr Paul Williams, the former MP for Stockton South who was ousted by Matthew Vickers in the Tory onslaught on the Red Wall in the December 2019 General Election. His quickfire selection for Hartlepool from a short list of one drew criticism from within the Party.

Dr Willams has spent the Covid-19 pandemic working as a front-line medic at the University Hospital of Hartlepool, protection of which is a top priority in his election platform.

The bookies’ favourite (Coral 8:13) is the Tory Jill Mortimer, for the seat that has never been Conservative since its creation in 1974.   

Yet she is not popular with some Conservative activists, Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen initially refusing to endorse her. She is viewed as an outsider, out of tune with the more right-wing Hartlepudlians in a town that voted 70% for Brexit.

Perhaps that’s why little detail is given on Mortimer in her campaign. In fact this frontrunner is also the dark horse. She is billed as a farmer and successful businesswoman with legal expertise. How far is that true? Here’s some background from published sources.

Jill Mortimer bought Woundales Farm for £300,000 with her first husband Marcus Killick in 2000 on their return from the Cayman Islands tax haven where he had worked in banking compliance. They had three children. They parted company, Marcus moving to a leading role in compliance in Gibraltar and a stellar career in financial supervision. Jill remained at Woundales Farm although Marcus still co-owns the property, according to Land Registry records.

The farm is on the south side of the North Yorks Moors National Park near Thirsk, 30 miles and a world away from Hartlepool, a coastal industrial town of which Mortimer has no experience.

Mrs Mortimer and second spouse Nicho, a trainee solicitor, raise cattle for their farm-gate meat stall. According to the Land Registry the farm is 7.5 hectares (18.5 acres), 8% of the size of the average Yorkshire farm. EU CAP subsidies for the farm according to farmsubsidy.org, totalled only €1706 (£1481) for 2008 and 2009, indicating a very small operation

Mortimer became an “accidental farmer” about 20 years ago. She said, “to earn some money to keep my family”. Her daughter was privately educated.

The Mortimers supplement their income with a three-bedroom B&B run from the farmhouse.

According to Companies House, Mrs Mortimer has never been a Company Director. Her political experience comprises two years as a Conservative Hambleton District Councillor, a post she still holds. She ran for Leeds East and lost in the 2019 General Election.

Mrs Mortimer studied Law as a mature student at Teesside University and is listed as a trainee barrister in the 2019 Hambleton Council register of councillors’ interests.

Whilst a March poll for The Times conducted by Focaldata put Labour in a 3% lead, a survey this month by Survation, commissioned by the CWU,  showed a Tory lead over Labour of 7% –  49% versus 42% – with the rest of the field trailing at 2% or less. 

While favouring Johnson over Starmer, the Survation respondents showed clear majorities in favour of standard Labour policies:  support for a nurses’ pay rise above the current 1% offer, re-nationalising the Royal Mail, investment in public services over reducing the national deficit; and free universal broadband.

The Tories are staking all on the visits of the big guns and the promise of jobs with the recently announced freeport. And how seriously do voters take Labour commitments that will be on hold until at least the next General Election?

The Tory record:  halving the town’s central government grant, the loss of 20,000 police officers nationally, falling nurse numbers, scandals over PPE contracts and the Arcuri case, the failure of Track and Trace, the 150,000 Covid-19 deaths, seems not to have dented their popularity. 

The Survation poll showed 42% support for Labour, compared with Mike Hill’s win with 37% of the count in 2019. Hill won because the Brexit Party took 25% of the vote leaving the Conservatives with 28%. Could the poll be a snapshot of the collapse of the Brexit Party (now Reform UK), reflecting the current ‘Brexit amnesia’?

If Brexit amnesia has combined with the current Covid ‘vaccine bounce’, then Mrs Mortimer could win. 

A note of caution however:  40% of the Survation sample of 502 respondents were undecided on how they would vote.

As ever, all hangs on the turnout on the day. Will it be nearer the 27% of the May 2019 local elections when council seats were won on margins as small as 28 votes?  Or the 57% of the 2019 General Election? How far will local politics affect the by election and vice-versa? 

With local child poverty standing at 27% and unemployment at 9%, many are less interested in psephological speculation than in how to put the tea on the table. As one Labour councillor commented to me:

“In my ward a large amount of people are lone parents because the other has died. Poverty and apathy are rife. Living when you’re skint is exhausting.”

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