The last parliament will be remembered fondly by Nigel Farage as the one when Ukip broke into the political mainstream to challenge both major parties, taking its first two seats at Westminster from the Conservatives and coming just a few hundred votes short of giving Labour a black eye in Heywood and Middleton last year.
But following solid second places in byelections in Middlesbrough and South Shields in 2013, it made sense Farage chose the north-east seaside town of Hartlepool to declare that Ukip was on a mission to “smash apart Labour’s one party state in the north”.
On the face of it, Hartlepool seems a rock-solid Labour seat. It has returned an MP from the party at every election since 1964 – including Peter Mandelson, Labour’s prince of darkness, who continues to insist he did not really mistake mushy peas for guacamole during one of his early reccies to the coastal town.
Iain Wright, the town’s MP since a 2004 byelection, was reelected in 2010 with a healthy majority of 5,509. But Ukip have long had eyes on the seat, earmarking it as a possible Ukip gain after a strong election showing there last year, with the party gaining two councillors and topping the European poll. As long ago as 2010, when other Ukip candidates were struggling to cling onto their deposits in the north-east, Ukip polled 7% of the vote in Hartlepool, and their local branch is the party’s oldest in the region.
Hartlepool is apparently one of Ukip’s ten top target seats. So confident is the party of its chances in the town that Phillip Broughton, Ukip’s parliamentary candidate, was introduced by regional MEP Jonathan Arnott on Tuesday as “the other future Ukip MP” after Farage himself.
Broughton is an interesting character. A former professional wrestler, he now works as a supervisor in a local Tesco and represented a ward in nearby Stockton from 2007 to 2011 for the Conservatives before defecting to Ukip.
Speaking to an audience of around 70 regional activists at Hartlepool’s Grand Hotel, Farage said support for Labour in the north is “incredibly soft”.
“It’s like a rotten window pane, all you have to do is push and the whole thing caves in,” he said. He optimistically predicted that Ukip could be the north-east’s biggest party by 2020.
Wright, unsurprisingly, is unconvinced. “I think [Farage] talks a good game but actually when it came to his visit he didn’t speak to any voters as I understand it, and he was cosseted away in a hotel,” he said on Tuesday. “He wants to get a media profile but when it comes to actually talking to real people about real issues that affect them in Hartlepool, Ukip aren’t doing that at all.” Wright insists he has seen no evidence of increased Ukip resources or activists on the ground locally.
One of the major issues for Hartlepool voters is the future of the town’s hospital, with plans for a new £300m “super-hospital” at Wynyard shelved and the town’s A&E department closed, leaving patients to travel to nearby Stockton or Middlesbrough. So worried are locals that one woman, Sandra Allison, is standing as a single issue Independent under the Save Hartlepool Hospital banner. She is hoping to emulate the success of Dr Richard Taylor, who fought and won Wyre Forest as an Independent in 2001 with a strong campaign based around restoring the Accident & Emergency department of Kidderminster Hospital.
Ukip’s Broughton has also seized on the issue, criticising Labour for “privatising” the health service when in office via controversial PFI funding deals for hospitals. “Labour aren’t a party of the NHS. They don’t care about the NHS. They want to use the NHS as a political weapon,” he said on Tuesday.
“Hartlepool hospital I’ve campaigned on very strongly. I’ve had a very consistent position - we’ve got to get those services returned to the Hartlepool hospital because we can’t have a situation where 90,000 people in Hartlepool are having to go to North Tees or to James Cook (in Middlesbrough).”
“The hospital upsets us all. We were quite happy to wait for Wynyard but evidently there’s no money for that. They closed our A&E. It’s a shame,” said Rita Green, in her seventies, when taking a break from shopping in Hartlepool town centre on Tuesday.
But Wright poured scorn on Broughton’s insistence that Ukip are now the party of the NHS: “I think given all the rhetoric coming out from the leadership that they want to go further on privatisation, they want to explore the notion of a US-based insurance system, they’ve considered charges to go see your GP. That doesn’t sound like a party that really wants to prioritise a national health service that’s publicly funded.”
Farage arrived in Hartlepool in buoyant spirits following a poll last week which gave him a lead in his own constituency battle in South Thanet. But a new batch of Lord Ashcroft polls on Monday found Ukip struggling to maintain momentum in other target seats, with signs of its support beginning to ebb in the likes of Great Grimsby as the election draws nearer. Ashcroft has not yet published a poll from Hartlepool, but Ukip bosses are optimistic after the party emerged victorious in last year’s European elections in the town.
All very promising, except the same happened in 2009, only to see a Labour MP returned the following year. So is it actually likely Hartlepool voters could plump for Ukip?
Many have yet to make up their minds. “I don’t think anyone knows who to vote for. Years ago you were just Labour. Hartlepool was Labour and your dads and grandfathers all voted Labour. It was just a done thing. But Labour’s not Labour now is it?” said Green.
“I’ve voted Labour all my life but I watched Mr Miliband on TV last night and I’m not so sure. It might be time for a change. I’ll leave my options open until the day,” said Bill Robson, 56. But his son disagreed. “I’ve got a much different opinion on Ukip. I don’t think Ukip can do any better,” said 25-year-old Andrew.
Recurring issues of unemployment, job insecurity and low pay were also foremost on voter’s minds. Hartlepool has been particularly hard hit by austerity, with a report last year claiming the council will have lost nearly a quarter of its funding over the parliament. “The unemployment has been bloody brutal. The issue is what’s been done to the steelworks and to the yards. I don’t think Ukip has an answer to that,” said one elderly man who did not want to be named.
Wright said that Labour need to introduce an industrial strategy to create high-end manufacturing jobs in the renewable sector to get the town back on its feet. “I’ve been an MP for 11 years now. This town, which has suffered over various recessions, had real economic difficulties, deindustrialisation, in the seventies and eighties, hit us hard as a town. We never had a food bank. But we did in 2011. The majority of people going to that food bank now are people in work who are struggling,” he said.
“My focus is making sure we get those economic conditions, the industry, to ensure that if you’re in work that you have a good standard of living. That’s the thing that drives me and gets me out of bed and wanting to help my town.”
This article was written by Dominic Smith, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 28th April 2015 19.36 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010