There are two popular reactions to the Hartlepool by-election, which one you favour depending largely on your political tribe. The first holds that the white working class has reacted against a woke, metropolitan Labour party and its knee-taking leader, Keir Starmer. The second holds that the town’s racist and xenophobic population are still fearful that their beloved Brexit might yet be undone, and were desperate to vote against a Labour candidate who had backed Remain.
Both of these narratives in fact boil down to pretty much the same thing: that the people of Hartlepool are a sad and angry bunch who tend to vote against things rather than vote for them. But could it be that this is wrong, and that Hartlepool did, in fact, vote from something they saw as potentially turning the local economic tide and bringing wealth to their locality, namely a freeport?
First, let’s just look at the idea that Hartlepool reacted against a Labour party they perceive to be led by a liberal metropolitan elite. I am sure many people feel that way – there can be few things more irritating than being told you are enjoying something called ‘white privilege’ when you live on a run-down council estate and can’t get a job.
Yet all the same, this is the same town that elected Peter Mandelson in 1992, and re-elected him twice thereafter. At the time, nobody better represented Labour’s metropolitan side than Mandelson, whom Neil Kinnock joked had walked into a fish and chip shop in Hartlepool, pointed at the mushy peas and asked if he could have some guacamole.
Hartlepool went on voting for Mandelson after he had been forced to resign as a minister after taking a loan from Geoffrey Robinson to buy a house (which has echoes of Boris and the alleged loan to fund his Downing Street makeover). It carried on voting for him after he was outed as gay by Matthew Parris on Newsnight, so it is not easy to try to portray the townsfolk as bigots, either.
Yet there was a very big elephant in this polling station – and one which has hardly been mentioned this morning. Part of the Hartlepool constituency lies within the government’s proposed Teeside freeport. No-one yet knows whether this initiative will really work: whether it will attract new industries to Britain or just such in factories currently based elsewhere in the North East.
But if you live in a town which has undergone industrial decline over the past few decades, which has plenty of under-used former industrial land, and along comes a government with an idea of how that might be transformed into a new commercial hub, bringing new jobs and wealth into the area, why wouldn’t you want to give it a go?
The biggest danger for the Conservatives of this victory is that it will lead them into complacency, thinking that all former red wall seats are now firmly Conservative for the long term. Yet not every Northern constituency has a proposed freeport within its boundaries.
On the contrary, this by-election could have been very different had it been held in one of the West Cumbrian seats. There, rather than bringing the promise of new jobs to the area, the government has snatched them away by blocking plans for a new coking coal mine, which could have supported 500 new jobs and supported many more in the UK steel industry.
The project, by the way, has been supported by the local Labour party. The government, however, has kow-towed to green campaigners, in spite of the fact that it would only produce coking coal for steelmaking, not thermal coal for power plants. Given we as yet have no commercial means of making steel without coal, the only other option is to import coal – or lose all primary steelmaking in Britain.
The Conservatives have had a good night in Hartlepool, but they shouldn’t take the northern working class vote for granted. They need to find a way of boosting the economies of towns which will not have a freeport on their doorstep.