In Labour heartlands, Brexit gives May a fighting chance

 18 Mar 2017 - 20:29

In Labour heartlands, Brexit gives May a fighting chance
Women look at the window display of a pawnbrokers shop in the centre of Hartlepool, northern England on March 8, 2017. As Prime Minister Theresa May puts Britain on the path to Brexit, her Conservative Party suddenly has a fighting chance in post-industrial areas like Hartlepool where Labour has traditionally dominated. AFP / Oli Scarff

By James Pheby / AFP

Hartlepool, United Kingdom: In the former shipbuilding hub of Hartlepool, traditional bastion of the centre-left Labour Party, lifelong supporter Stan grumbles that the party leaders have "lost their way totally".

Like seven out of 10 voters in this post-industrial town in northeastern England, Stan, a silver-haired pensioner, voted to leave the EU, ignoring the pleas of the pro-European Labour leadership.

Theresa May's Conservatives are increasingly hoping to appeal to voters like Stan as she puts Britain on the path to Brexit, giving the party previously unimaginable hopes of winning in eurosceptic areas of the country once seen as Labour strongholds.

"And don't mention immigration! I totally disagree with the Labour view on immigration. We're a small island, so I'm against it!" fumes Stan.

Labour voters have also been put off by party in-fighting and the hugely unpopular Jeremy Corbyn -- resulting in a stunning by-election win for the Conservatives in Copeland, a northwestern area that has been a Labour seat since 1924.

'Disillusioned'

Kevin Mason, who works in the re-developed marina in Hartlepool, where restaurants and pubs have replaced the hulking machinery and timber yards of the old docks, said he used to vote Labour but "doesn't believe any more in their politics".

"A lot of people around here feel the same, they're all just as disillusioned as me," Mason, 59, told AFP.

If May succeeds in her attempts to secure a clean break with the European Union in order to cut down on immigration from other parts of Europe, experts say, her party could lure wavering Labour supporters.

Tribal loyalties and historical bitterness against the Conservatives run deep in communities like Hartlepool but the staggering Copeland by-election victory last month showed all that could change.

"Theresa May has been quite forceful in the way she is dealing with Brexit and I think she is probably one of the main ingredients to the success of the by-election," said Ray Martin-Wells, chairman of Hartlepool Conservatives.

Conservative 'threat'?

Labour has held Hartlepool since the early 1960s, with "New Labour" architect Peter Mandelson securing 60 percent of the vote in 1997.

Current incumbent Iain Wright retained the seat in 2015, but support was sharply down from Mandelson's day, with a majority of around 3,000 ahead of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP).

Successful negotiations in Brussels could boost the Conservative Party in England, which voted overwhelmingly to leave the European Union.

"The Conservatives are going to be more of a threat," Labour Leader of Hartlepool Borough Council Christopher Akers-Belcher told AFP.

Labour politicians were overwhelmingly in favour of the European Union, driving a wedge with voters in their heartlands, who were solidly pro-Brexit.

"At every parliamentary by-election since the people voted for Brexit, Labour's share of the vote has fallen, pointing to a far more widespread disconnect between the party and the people," wrote University of Kent politics professor Matthew Goodwin.

"If Prime Minister Theresa May and her party can steal Copeland, then they will almost certainly run riot across marginal Labour-held seats where Labour MPs are sitting on thin majorities," he said.

'Rather have Trump'

Despite this, although aligned over Brexit, many are in no hurry to cross the divide and back the Conservatives, who are still blamed for hastening the demise of local industry during the 1980s.

"The Conservatives aren't very kind to this area, they never have been, so I think that sticks in the craw," said Labour voter Stan, despite describing himself as having "conservative overtones".

Getting disaffected Labour supporters to vote Conservative "is a big leap," admitted Martin-Wells.

Long-term disillusionment with both major parties has so far boosted the anti-establishment UKIP, which now has six members on the council out of 33 and beat the Tories into second place in the 2015 general election.

"I'd rather have (US President Donald) Trump here, honestly I would," middle-aged local Angela Lynch told AFP in the town's shopping centre, its empty units testament to the area's economic struggles.

Hartlepool has a population of 116,000 and unemployment is roughly double the national average.

The largest employer is now the nuclear power station, whose chimneys and imposing buildings dominate the skyline on the beach south of town.

Hartlepool's anti-establishment streak was demonstrated when it elected as mayor the local football team's monkey mascot -- himself inspired by a famous tale of the townsfolk hanging a shipwrecked monkey during the Napoleonic Wars, believing it to be a French sailor.

"I wouldn't consider voting Tory, UKIP maybe, they care more about the working man," said Lynch.

But with UKIP's charismatic long-time leader Nigel Farage now out of the picture and a grassroots operation lacking the depth of the major parties, Martin-Wells believes the door is ajar.

"Copeland proved that anything is possible," he said.