Hartlepool isn’t all about Brexit — Labour’s local record matters too
Brexit and Boris are two factors in the Conservatives’ historic Hartlepool result, but local issues matter and there are plenty of questions over Labour’s record in the North East that have largely escaped national coverage.
When I started as a reporter at Darlington’s Northern Echo in 2006, the Tees Valley was Labour as far as the eye could see. Labour MPs held every seat from Bishop Auckland in the west to Redcar on the coast, and every council was Labour controlled. That’s a big red strip cutting halfway across England. Not any more. But why?
There was a feeling even then that Labour was taking the region for granted during the good times, and focusing on chasing southern votes. I remember calling one MP for a comment on a story from their patch that had been dominating our front pages for the best part of a month, only to find they had no idea what I was talking about. Many candidates were parachuted in from London and seen as aloof and out of touch, often more occupied with cabinet posts. One of those — Hartlepool MP Peter Mandelson — had a major falling out with his local newspaper. Vera Baird, who had more longstanding ties to the region, did too.
Britain’s Laziest MP
Labour’s Sir Stuart Bell was MP for nearby Middlesbrough for the best part of 30 years. I nearly wrote “served as MP” there, but checked myself because that wouldn’t be accurate.
We often heard reports about his lack of engagement at the Echo, but when I later worked for the Teesside Gazette in 2011 we were inundated with calls from angry constituents who had gone to him for help, with no response. This had been happening for more than a decade.
At one point, we decided to offer all our local MPs space in the paper for a regular column in which they could answer readers’ questions. We had some good ones from hardworking MPs like Labour’s Tom Blenkinsop and Alex Cunningham and Conservative James Wharton.
But Sir Stuart didn’t fancy it. After much prompting, he eventually responded via email with a grandiose “your scheme is not one which commends itself to me.” He added that he wasn’t interested in addressing local issues, but would perhaps write something on a national or international topic.
He wrote: “There are many Gazette readers, especially on the housing estates, who do not buy a national paper and a welcome intrusion of national politics into their life might be a change from reading your letters page, which in any event gives an entirely false impression of the area in which we live and little knowledge of the wider political picture.”
We politely explained that as a local paper, we would like a column from our local MPs addressing local issues. And that all of our other MPs had agreed to do it. We heard nothing back, so when it came to his turn we published a blank page with his photo byline at the top.
It was clear that something was amiss, so we started a more in-depth look at Sir Stuart’s work. He rarely showed up to hustings events at election time. He barely mentioned Teesside in parliament, and was one of the lowest ranked MPs for attendance and participation in votes. He had no office in the town, and had stopped holding constituency surgeries 14 years previously.
Staff for a neighbouring Labour MP told us Sir Stuart’s constituents regularly contacted them for help instead. They had a specific drawer in the office cabinet marked “The Bell File”.
Our readers told us Sir Stuart was impossible to reach so we decided to test this. His website said residents could contact him via phone, so we rang the published numbers for his constituency address and his Westminster office 100 times in 100 days. We never got a single response.
We published our investigation, and it was immediately picked up by the nationals. The Independent pictured Sir Stuart on its front page under the headline “Is This Britain’s Laziest MP?” It was named story of the week in The Guardian.
There was a long-running rumour that Sir Stuart actually lived in France. We couldn’t stand that up, but it was certainly a more credible explanation than any we received from him, or from the Labour party.
We gave them both a week’s notice before publication, outlined our key findings and asked for a response. We got nothing. Tumbleweed. We didn’t expect much from the MP (clearly), but the lack of response from Labour was particularly disappointing.
We wrote to the party press office, to Labour whip Rosie Winterton, and Labour leader Ed Miliband. All declined to comment.
When the story went national, Labour finally acknowledged it with a statement.
"Ed Miliband and the Labour Party expect the highest standards from Labour representatives,” it read.
"It is totally unacceptable if the public cannot reach their MP. A number of allegations have been raised and these will be discussed with Sir Stuart."
This comment was given to Westminster lobby reporters, but never to us. When we asked what the outcomes of those discussions were, we received no response. Sir Stuart remained in post, and at no point did anyone from the Labour party contact us to find out what had been going on.
The Thin Blue Line
The region’s police force — Cleveland — has been dogged by scandal after scandal for years. It has been through six chief constables in less than a decade, been subject to several corruption investigations costing millions of pounds (here, here) was slammed for racism in the ranks (here and here), and misused terror laws to unlawfully tap local journalists’ phones (here).
Labour had political oversight during this entire time. Redcar and Cleveland Councillor Dave McLuckie was chairman of the police authority until resigning in 2011 following the launch of Operation Sacristy — a criminal investigation into corruption at the top of the force, which was led by Warwickshire Police. It uncovered lavish spending by the force’s top brass on meals out and trips abroad. Chief Constable Sean Price was ultimately fired for the role he played in finding a job within the force for McLuckie’s daughter. McLuckie himself was jailed in 2013 for perverting the course of justice after it emerged he had persuaded a friend to accept speeding points on his behalf.
When the police authorities were replaced by the Police and Crime Commissioners in 2012, Labour’s Barry Coppinger — a Middlesbrough councillor — was duly elected. The scandals continued and the force was rated “failing” in all areas during an HMIC inspection in 2019. Coppinger resigned last year. At the time, he was being investigated by the Independent Office for Police Conduct over concerns about his use of private WhatsApp messages for police business. He was later cleared, but has now been replaced by Conservative Steve Turner.
New Tees Tories
Turner and Hartlepool MP Jill Mortimer are the latest Tories to make a breakthrough in the Tees Valley. Former Stockton South MP James Wharton made Brexit waves in parliament in the years running up to the EU referendum in 2016, and briefly became minister for the Northern Powerhouse. The scheme failed to pull off major accomplishments on Teesside during his time, not least when the Conservative government did nothing to stop 170 years of local steelmaking coming to an end with the closure of the huge SSI plant at Redcar and the loss of thousands of jobs.
Wharton lost his seat to Labour in 2017. The Northern Powerhouse was even described as a PR con-trick by Daily Mail columnist Andrew “Tory Boy” Pierce during a question time event with The Mirror’s Kevin Maguire in the North East. The Cameron government had previously axed the regional regeneration body One North East. Meanwhile, the region suffered badly from the effects of Tory austerity — with rising deprivation, unemployment, and even falling life expectancies.
But the Wharton loss was a blip, and the seat went Tory again in 2019. As did Bishop Auckland, Redcar, Sedgefield and Darlington. This week’s elections have solidified Tory gains.
London friends ask me why this is happening. They think turkeys are voting for Christmas, and people in Hartlepool and the Tees Valley have been duped by Brexit lies, conned into thinking that Conservatives would bother to help them. And up here, there was a feeling that the Cameron-Osborne government wasn’t serious about addressing the North-South divide, for all the Northern Powerhouse talk.
But could “levelling up” be different? It will be uncomfortable for the Labour party to read this, but there have been notable local achievements by the new breed of Tories — most of whom are young, from the area, and visibly engaged in local issues. When the new Tees Valley Mayor post was established in 2017, Conservative candidate Ben Houchen, 34, promised to nationalise the struggling local airport. It seemed absurd that Teesside would elect a Tory, let alone one that would nationalise private interests. But he won, and he did. Since then he’s been at the forefront of major job-making announcements. There are plans for a new clean energy plant at the former SSI site. Teesside is to host the UK’s first freeport, which the government claims will create 18,000 jobs and boost the local economy by £3.4bn.
When Gordon Brown was prime minister, there was talk of moving chunks of the civil service out of London to regenerate provincial economies. Little happened on the Tees Valley. But now the Treasury is to open a new “campus” in Darlington with hundreds of jobs. When Rishi Sunak sat down with the Northern Echo to discuss the announcement, he was at great pains to praise Houchen for the role he played in winning the bid. He’s just been re-elected with 73% of the vote.
Labour’s Big Problem
There is clearly a realpolitik at play here. It doesn’t harm Tory election prospects when a Tory government grants funding to projects in Tory-controlled areas - particularly when they’re rubbing up against vulnerable Labour constituencies.
I interviewed Sir Keir Starmer as part of an online Q&A with former Labour voters in Northumberland last year, where a similar patch of blue has emerged after recent elections. There are Government promises there of big job-creating investments, such as a new train line from Ashington to Newcastle. I asked him why people should go back to Labour, if the Tories deliver on pledges like this. He was skeptical that such plans would materialise. And he’s not alone — the people of the North East have been handed plenty of empty promises before. Starmer’s biggest challenge will be if the Tories start delivering them.
Neil Macfarlane is a Senior Lecturer in Online Journalism at the University of Sunderland. He has recently written for the likes of Private Eye, HuffPo UK and The Journal.