Hartlepool: the not so independent council

From Reform UK Twitter page

In January, Hartlepool councillor John Tennant became the first local politician in the country to step over to Nigel Farage’s new Reform UK Party. No surprise there.

The town is no stranger to political precedent. In 2002 it returned the local football club’s monkey mascot as its one and only elected mayor.

H’Angus The Monkey was born from the legend that the town hanged a shipwrecked monkey during the Napoleonic Wars, mistaking it for a French spy.  Hartlepool United FC’s nickname is the Monkey Hangers.

The man in the monkey suit, Stuart Drummond, was not a disaster. He served two more terms until the post was scrapped in 2013 by a local referendum.

H’Angus had stood as an Independent, meeting that local ABC requirement: Anything But Conservative. But the town’s faith in Independents was to become its Achilles heel.

After 2013, the town opted for a leader and cabinet model, with a third of its 33 councillors elected every three years in annual local elections.

Hartlepool was always solid Labour, the party dominating the scattering of Independents and minor parties with a few Conservatives from the better-off wards.

Then came Brexit in 2016. Swallowing the ‘Leave’ narrative whole, 70 per cent of Hartlepool’s voters opted for Brexit.

That same year, John Tennant was elected as a UKIP councillor.  With Tennant as UKIP group leader, the party had five representatives on the council at the time of the EU Referendum.

In January 2018, in the face of national negative publicity, all but one of Hartlepool’s six UKIP councillors quit the party to sit as The Independent Group. At the same time, UKIP MEP for North East England Jonathan Arnott resigned from the party.

In December 2018, Nigel Farage left UKIP, citing his opposition to the Islamophobic views of the new leader Gerrard Batten who had hired anti-Islam activist and English Defence League founder Tommy Robinson (aka Stephen Lennon) as adviser.

In February 2019 Farage registered his new Brexit Party with the Electoral Commission. A few days later, Tennant launched The Independent Union (IU), claiming the new local party was in response to splits in the town’s Labour Party.  No mention was made that the IU councillors were overwhelmingly ex-UKIP.

In the May 2019 local election Labour lost control of the council to the IU in a coalition with three Tories and the sole representative of the Veterans and People’s Party.

And that is how, in voting for ‘Independents’, Hartlepool, with a central government grant more than halved since 2014,  child poverty at 27 per cent and a jobless rate of 9 per cent managed to elect a council led by the far right.

In the election’s aftermath, four Labour councillors including the former leader, his husband and mother-in-law, defected to the Socialist Labour Party, Arthur Scargill’s group which is pro-Brexit and seeks to reopen the mines.

The new Leader of the Council is Shane Moore. Moore and Tennant set up in business together as co-directors of Sustainable Fisheries (Tees Valley) CIC, established in 2019. Moore sits on the Board of the North Eastern Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority, which approves permits. On 4 February this year the councillors changed the company name to Town of Hartlepool Corporation CIC.

In May 2019 while still a councillor, Tennant was elected as Brexit Party MEP for North East England, Britain’s last gasp in the European Parliament that ended in January 2020. For his seven distinguished months, Tennant earned £110,866 in salary and allowances. Plus expenses.

In September 2019 the council’s ruling group defected en masse to the Brexit Party, calling themselves the Brexit and Conservative Coalition.

At the December 2019 General Election Hartlepool was the number one target for the Brexit Party, which fielded property tycoon and Party Chair Richard Tice as candidate. Tice won 25.8% of the vote, splitting the Tory support and allowing Labour MP Mike Hill to keep his seat.

In February 2020 the Council’s Brexit and Conservative Coalition folded and its members returned to their own parties.

Is there any discernible difference between UKIP, the Brexit Party and  Reform UK?

The distinction between the Brexit and Reform UK parties is in name only. Farage re-registered the Brexit Party with the Electoral Commission under its new name on 6 January this year.

Farage distanced himself from UKIP

” UKIP and the Brexit Party are very different and I don’t think that Middle England’s decent people want to vote for a political party that is linked to extremism, violence, criminal records and thuggery. That’s why I left UKIP.”

But was the Brexit Party any different?  

Undercover filming by Channel 4 News of the Brexit Party in Hartlepool during the 2019 General Election showed volunteers had simply moved over from UKIP. The conversations revealed a racist theme. Common phrases were “They’re out-breeding us” and “They live like animals”.

One activist, Hartlepool Brexit Party Councillor David Mincher, claimed he had tried to bury a pig’s head under a mosque that was being built, to “desecrate it”. He had been banned from Hartlepool United FC five times and was a cocaine dealer, he claimed.

Then we have Jonathan Arnott, the former UKIP MEP who was in post from 2014 to 2019.  According to the Land Registry, he bought shop premises at 41 Elwick Road, Hartlepool, unmortgaged, for £69,000 in 2017. He swathed it in the purple plastic banners of UKIP. At the 2019 General Election the premises, still owned by Arnott, were used as Brexit Party HQ, its frontage now covered in turquoise plastic posters. The office was used as Richard Tice’s election agent’s address. Now Arnott is a Reform UK member. He uses the flat over the shop as a residence address and for the present the shop frontage is blank. 

Council Leader, Shane Moore, originally elected in 2016, has served as Independent, UKIP,  Independent Group, IU, Brexit Party and IU again. Before becoming a councillor Moore was Chair of the local Conservative Party branch. A tanker driver, he lost his licence for the second time in June 2017 for drink-driving, having three times over the legal limit of alcohol in his blood.

Then we have Tennant’s eclectic allegiances. In his registration of interests for the European Parliament of July 2019, Tennant listed his paid jobs as local councillor, office manager to UKIP MEP  Jonathan Arnott, and regional controller for the Brexit Party, each of them in the salary band between £880 and £4400 per month. He also declared his unremunerated post as Party Chair of the Independent Union.

In his Council register of interests filing Tennant reports that he is Local Elections Organiser for Reform UK.

Tennant is reportedly very close to Farage, having organised his public meetings in the region for UKIP.

When we look at the likes of Arnott, Tennant, Moore and Mincher, we see three identical parties with the Farage brand guaranteeing publicity, money and votes.

Throw into the mix a newcomer, The For Britain Movement founded by activist Anne Marie Waters, after she lost the UKIP leadership battle to Batten.

Waters also co-founded extreme right wing Islamophobic Pegida UK with Tommy Robinson (Stephen Lennon).

Karen King is their first Hartlepool councillor following her election in 2019. Waters has moved up to Hartlepool to King’s ward, it’s thought to run for councillor and then MP. 

For Britain was registered with the Electoral Commission in May 2018. Its accounts for 2019 reported income of £194,915. Despite having the backing of singer Morrissey, the party denies that it has donors giving £500 or over (who they must declare) reporting smaller donations totalling £32,433 and earning £7,815 through fundraising. They claim to have received £154,567 in membership fees. 

The party is reported to have welcomed an influx of ex-members of the British National Party (BNP). Sam Melia, a For Britain candidate, was active in the neo-nazi organisation National Action, banned as a terrorist group in December 2016.

The 2020 local elections were postponed due to Covid-19. This May will the Hartlepool poll be a battleground of the far right?

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