U.K. election: Why a Labour stronghold of half a century could fall to a pro-Brexit party

Labour Party strongholds in the U.K. are being targeted by both the Brexit Party and the Conservative Party, both of which hope to capitalize on voters' disaffection over Brexit.

Traditional party politics in England has been upended by the country's vote to leave the EU

Both the Brexit Party and Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Conservatives are targeting ridings like Hartlepool in the upcoming election, hoping to capitalize on disaffection over Brexit in the Labour heartlands of the north. (Lily Martin/CBC)

Every day around high tide, no matter the weather, you'll find a dozen or so fishermen positioned along the seawall that runs along England's northeastern coast at Hartlepool.

Wrapped up against the elements, they stand like a line of defence against the encroaching continent on the other side of the fog bank and the swells.

"I feel angry at the EU," said Ronnie Horn, a headlight perched on top of his plaid cap with its earflaps down. The middle of the day can sometimes feel like the middle of the night in a Hartlepool winter.

"The people that are running it and are telling us what we have to do — and most of it to suit them."

Sixty-nine per cent of voters here backed Brexit — the U.K.'s departure from the European Union — in the 2016 referendum.

A straw poll among the fishermen on the seawall reflects that sentiment still, with one exception: a retired prison worker who would only give his name as Steve.

Hartlepool fisherman Ronnie Horn says he's angry at the European Union, at 'the people that are running it and are telling us what we have to do — and most of it to suit them.' (Lily Martin/CBC)

"I voted remain," he said. "But it's a democracy. We voted out, we should have left. If you can't go with your vote, you've lost your democracy."

It's a strong and common sentiment in these parts. And Steve is a perfect example of just how much traditional party politics in England has been upended by Brexit.

He's voted Labour all his life, but won't this time because he can't stomach Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn. 

Nor can he bring himself to back the Conservatives, and he won't support the pro-EU Liberal Democrats because they've pledged to stop Brexit by revoking Article 50, which set the Brexit countdown running in the first place. 

And that makes him a remain supporter who will be casting a ballot for the Brexit Party, which has parachuted its chairman, multimillionaire Richard Tice, into Hartlepool as its candidate. 

Both the Brexit Party, led by Nigel Farage, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Conservatives are targeting ridings like Hartlepool in this election, hoping to capitalize on disaffection over Brexit in the Labour heartlands of the north, the so-called red wall.

WATCH | Economically battered and fed up with Brexit delay, voters in Hartlepool are turning away from Labour:

The U.K. Labour Party tries to rebuild trust in Hartlepool, a Labour stronghold in the north of England that is leaning toward the Tories and the Brexit Party ahead of the Dec. 12 election. 2:23

Last month Farage announced his party would only target seats not held by the Conservatives in the last election so as not to split the vote. But in a riding like Hartlepool, where pro-Brexit sentiment is strong, that's exactly what could happen. 

Fisherman Ronnie Horn, for example, knows he'll have to make a choice between the two pro-Brexit parties and thinks the Conservatives will have the better chance. 

"I don't really want to vote for Conservatives," he said, "but there's no way on this earth I'll vote for Labour." 

Austerity to blame: Hill

Labour has held Hartlepool for more than half a century. Labour candidate Mike Hill won it by around 7,000 votes in 2017. 

Out door-knocking in Hartlepool's seemingly interminable fog, he admits that the Labour Party's perceived ambiguity on Brexit has brought challenges.

"[Corbyn] has been recently criticized for not [having] declared which way he will go on that," he said.

Hartlepool incumbent Mike Hill, of Britain's Labour Party, blames the area's economic decline on austerity measures brought in by the Conservative government. (Lily Martin/CBC)

Official policy is that, if elected, Labour will negotiate a new Brexit deal with the European Union and then put it to a referendum that would also offer staying in as a choice.

"We understand that people are frustrated about Brexit," said Hill. "But they've also got to remember Hartlepool is in the situation it's in because of 10 years of Conservative Party austerity measures. We've been battered and battered and battered again by the Tories."

Hartlepool has been on a long path of decline over the past 40 years, starting with the loss of the shipbuilding industry and the more recent hit taken by the steel industry — considered one of the "major success stories" and a source of pride, said Sacha Bedding, who manages a charity called The Annexe in one of Hartlepool's most downtrodden neighbourhoods.

It has left in its wake a sadness, he said, a loss of the town's sense of self. 

Today there are seven food banks in a town that has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country.

Many here associate Hartlepool's decline as an industrial powerhouse with EU competition policies prohibiting state-aid.

But its official designation as one of the U.K.'s most deprived areas entitles it to EU aid — and, in fact, the northeast receives twice the amount of EU funding as other parts of England. Few people know about that, and so the European Union remains a target of many people's ire.

WATCH | 'No one seems to know what's going on': Young Britons frustrated with Brexit confusion:

Students from the Northern School of Art in Hartlepool, northeastern England, are disillusioned by the drawn-out Brexit process as they head into election day. 3:09

'Getting nothing' out of EU

"Because we're getting nothing out of it. Were putting the most money in and we're getting nothing out of it," said Pat Abbey, one of the patrons of a bingo night at Ye Olde Durhams Social Club.

Like Steve on the seawall, she too used to vote Labour. Not anymore.

"Labour was labour then, wasn't it? They used to help you, be for the working man," Abbey said. "But now they're just out for themselves. They don't care about the people."

Abbey said she'll vote for the Conservative Party because she likes Johnson.

But it's not a given that Labour will fall. The Conservatives adopted the same strategy toward Labour ridings in the north in 2017 and failed to break through the generational connections that can still play a big part in voting patterns.  

Johnson's predecessor Theresa May wound up with a hung Parliament.  

There are some too, like bingo-goer, Rita Kelly, who say they are so disaffected by the choices in front of them that they will vote for no one. 

"Women have suffered and died for the vote for women, and I feel very guilty that I'm not using my vote at the moment. But, on the other hand, I'm very careful about where I give my loyalties — and this lot don't get it."

At a bingo hall in Hartlepool, Rita Kelly says none of the parties have won her support, and she doesn't plan to vote at all. (Lily Martin/CBC)

Bedding believes it is important for people here to believe that their vote counted in the referendum. He also says it is a message not just for the European Union but for anyone who will listen.

"For the last 40 years we've had an irrelevant class in this country. So towns like Hartlepool and others in the north, and other parts of the country as well, have been politically irrelevant. And I think that they're only relevant now because of the way the EU referendum went."

And because now their votes are needed again.

LISTEN | CBC's Margaret Evans talks to voters in London and Hartlepool about the options they are weighing in this election and how Brexit is factoring in their vote:

The U.K. heads back to the polls this week for the third time since 2015. CBC’s senior Europe correspondent, Margaret Evans, spoke with voters in London and Hartlepool about the Dec.12 election and the ongoing Brexit upheaval. 18:37

About the Author

Margaret Evans

Europe correspondent

Margaret Evans is a correspondent based in the CBC News London bureau. A veteran conflict reporter, Evans has covered civil wars and strife in Angola, Chad and Sudan, as well as the myriad battlefields of the Middle East.