Neglected heartland seen as key to Brexit-dominated election
HARTLEPOOL – In Hartlepool, a tough, proud English port town whipped by bitter North Sea winds, people have long felt ignored by politicians in far-off London. But not anymore.
Political parties in Britain's Brexit-dominated December election are battling fiercely to win Hartlepool and places like it: working-class former industrial towns with voters who could hold the key to the prime minister's office at 10 Downing Street.
Hartlepool has elected lawmakers from the left-of-center Labour Party for more than half a century. But in 2016, almost 70% of voters here backed leaving the European Union. More than three years later, the U.K. is still an EU member, and loyalty to Labour has been eroded by frustration at the political gridlock.
"l've always been a Labour voter," said Diane Jordan, a hypnotherapist enjoying an evening of music and bingo at the Hartlepool Working Men's Club. "My parents were always Labour. My grandparents were always Labour.
"I've never been on the Conservative side, but to me that's looking the best option at the moment, because they're the ones that are wanting to put Brexit through."
That's good news for Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who pushed for the Dec. 12 election, more than two years early, in hope of breaking Britain's parliamentary deadlock over Brexit. He withdrew his EU divorce deal from Parliament last month after lawmakers demanded more time to scrutinize it. If he gets a majority of the 650 House of Commons seats, he will be able to ratify the package and take Britain out of the bloc as scheduled on Jan. 31.
Johnson's Conservatives are ahead in most opinion polls, but analysts say this election is particularly hard to predict because Brexit cuts across traditional party divides. The 2016 referendum on Britain's EU membership split the country into two camps: leavers and remainers.
Leavers, who are concentrated in small towns and post-industrial cities across England, are eager to cut Brussels red tape, reassert British sovereignty and take control of immigration. Remainers, who most often live in big cities and university towns, would rather stay in an alliance that has eased the flow of goods, services and people across 28 nations with half a billion inhabitants.
Hartlepool, a former shipbuilding center 250 miles (400 kms) north of London where unemployment is more than double the national average, is a town full of leavers.
Tom O'Grady, a lecturer in political science at University College London, said Conservatives need to win seats like Hartlepool to compensate for the likely loss of pro-EU areas in southern England and Scotland.
"They're going to have to gain seats in the north of England and the Midlands from Labour if they're going to win a big majority," he said.
But the Conservatives' challenge is complicated by the insurgent Brexit Party, led by veteran euroskeptic Nigel Farage. He rejects Johnson's deal with the EU because it would keep the U.K. bound to the bloc's rules until the end of 2020, and possibly longer.
He'd rather leave the EU without an agreement, which would free Britain to strike new trade deals around the world. It would also, according to most economists, leave the country poorer, by imposing barriers to business with the EU, Britain's biggest trading partner.
Farage accuses both Conservatives and Labour of watering down and delaying Brexit. Hartlepool, where the Brexit Party controls the town council, is the party's top target in the election.
Richard Tice, the Brexit Party's chairman and its Hartlepool candidate, argues that backing the Conservatives here is "a wasted vote."
"The Conservatives can never win in Hartlepool. They never have done in over 60 years. They never will do," he said.
He urged people to vote for the Brexit Party in areas held by Labour and other parties that want to stop Brexit. "Then we can make sure a proper Brexit is delivered."
Not all Brexiteers welcome the party's message. This week Farage — under pressure from some of his own supporters — pulled his candidates out of 317 Conservative-dominated electoral constituencies to avoid splitting the pro-Brexit vote.
He faces continued pressure to withdraw from Labour seats as well, to give the Conservatives a better chance. So far, Farage refuses to budge, arguing that the Tories should stand aside to let the Brexit Party take on Labour in places like Hartlepool.
Labour's complex stance on Brexit has angered some supporters. The party wants to renegotiate the divorce deal, then hold a new referendum on whether to leave the EU or remain. But Labour hopes that social issues such as crime, health care and welfare — all affected by a decade of Conservative public-spending cuts — matter more to voters than Brexit.
"People on the doorstep are talking about anything but Brexit," said Mike Hill, who is running for re-election as the town's Labour lawmaker. He predicted locals wouldn't warm to Tice, a wealthy property developer from the south of England.
"The Brexit Party seem to think they can come here with some southern billionaire candidate and just waltz into the place," Hill said. "Well, the people of Hartlepool are not fools. They can see right through that."
No one, though, is taking Hartlepool's voters for granted. People here are weary — and wary of politicians' promises.
This area has had a rough few decades, and many here voted for Brexit in hope of reversing the decline.
Once-bustling shipyards are closed, though rusting hulks are reduced to scrap at a site just outside town. Most of the steelworks that once employed thousands shut down in the 1970s and 1980s.
In the harbor, trawlers still land with holds full of fish, lobster and crab, but the number of boats has fallen. Fishermen, who rail against the EU's quotas and red tape, are among the staunchest supporters of leaving the bloc.
They have put their faith in Brexit. But they have little trust in Britain's politicians, no matter what the party.
"I hope Boris Johnson fetches us out of this friggin' EU," said Robert Corner, a retired fisherman chatting to friends in a quayside shack. "I hope he does what he says.
"Mind you, he might be a bit of a liar. But if he's as good as his word, he will get us out of it."
Vicky Ferrar in London contributed to this story.
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