Voters in Hartlepool are not impressed with Labour’s fresh-faced by-election candidate, deriding him as a “Remainer” and are just as scornful of the party’s leader, journalists casing the constituency have discovered.
In March, incumbent MP, Mike Hill resigned with immediate effect triggering a by-election in the heavily pro-Leave seat. 70% of Hartlepoolers voted for independence in 2016, one of the highest tallies in the country. The Tories failed to add Hartlepool to their impressive tally of red wall seats at the last election and sense an opportunity.
And if reaction to Labour’s candidate – parachuted in by Labour HQ despite protestations from the local party – is anything to go by, the Tories are in for another big victory. The seaside seat has been red since it was created in 1974. Labour held on in 2019, but it could have been a very different story had Richard Tice not run for the Brexit Party, slimming the Tory vote share. Hill saw his fraction of the vote collapse by 15%.
Politico sent a journalist up to Hartlepool and found that locals did not have much time for Labour under leader, Keir Starmer, nor were they impressed with the party’s candidate, medic Paul Williams.
Three men in their seventies questioned about the by-election and Labour’s chances all referred to Williams as the “Remainer” and were extremely well informed about the candidate’s pro-EU credentials, reeling off the number of times “the doctor” had broken the party whip to “block Brexit” in Parliament. Williams also posted tweets boasting about his involvement in the second referendum campaign. The tweets have since been deleted.
The men agreed Labour “doesn’t listen” and mocked Starmer over the his recent failed attempt to enter a pub in Bath that went viral on social media. “I don’t think he’d be welcome in very many pubs round here,” said one of the three gentlemen.
Establishment mag, The Economist also sent a reporter up North and spoke with a Hartlepool landlord, who in spite of the crippling impact of lockdown, had warm words for Boris even though he said he thought the PM was ill-suited to a crisis like Covid.
“The vaccine was a masterstroke. It’s pulling us out, when the rest of Europe is still in the mire,” said publican, Tim Flemming.
Flemming captured what seems like a general mood of generosity towards Boris at odds with disregard towards Starmer.
“He’s a positive guy trying to get things done,” he added. “You don’t get any positive vibes off Starmer. It’s like he’s fighting for his life.”
Boris has come under fire for not selecting Hartlepool as part of his ‘levelling up’ agenda, but investments elsewhere in the North have not gone unnoticed, helping to tip the balance in the Tories’ favour. One staunch Labour voter said he was “wavering for the first time” and hinted he wanted a Tory MP to fight Hartlepool’s corner in Westminster, rather than being “left out on a limb”.
Williams has had to focus on denying his Remainer credentials that refuse to go away, and less it would appear on trying to convince voters he would bring Hartlepool into the government’s spending plans.
On the awkward Remainer tag, he told Politico: “Occasionally it comes up, but it’s no longer an issue of Leave or Remain. It feels like everyone’s united now in that we want to make a success of it.”
As for Starmer’s poor profile, “people haven’t gotten to know [him] very well in the last year,” Williams said, adding, “there was a bit of an assumption that because he was from the south, he must’ve had some kind of privileged upbringing, but when he came here he listened really carefully to people and he made a strong, positive connection.” He also blamed Covid for reducing Starmer’s visibility.
The negative anecdotal opinion of Labour in Hartlepool reflects fresh national polling, which continues to put the Tories well ahead of the opposition.