In Hartlepool, I’m aiming for a noble defeat

8 May 2021

9:00 AM

8 May 2021

9:00 AM

By the time you read this you may know if the Tories triumphed in the Hartlepool by-election — or if, in the end, the party was too badly wounded by all that business about who paid for whose wallpaper. Boris Johnson visited the town more times than he visited Scotland in the campaign, so he certainly sensed victory. But who can predict elections nowadays? One thing, alas, is all but certain: I will have lost. I decided to stand as an independent candidate at the last minute, motivated by how much I loathe the apparatchiks at both main parties’ London HQs — disconnected, mediocre and disdainful. Just look at their candidates. Labour chose slick Paul Williams, booted out by his constituents in Stockton South for flouting their wishes in the Brexit referendum. A natural choice for Hartlepool where 70 per cent voted Leave. The Conservatives picked Jill Mortimer from prosperous North Yorkshire. In her mid-fifties, she’s a ‘trainee barrister’ who has never held a proper job. Perfect for a ‘bring much-needed jobs to Hartlepool’ campaign. What chance that Hartlepool rejects them both, and elects me? Almost none. I can at least aim for a noble defeat.

West Hartlepool was founded by my great-great-great-uncle Ralph Ward Jackson (no hyphen, that came later). If you describe him as the founder of Hartlepool, the inhabitants of the ancient Headland get understandably upset. There was a fishing village there from the 7th century, and St Hilda built a church on her way from Lindisfarne to Whitby. My namesake (for ease, let’s call him Senior) was a rogueish Victorian entrepreneur. He was passionate, perhaps to a fault: in 1861 he was fined for assaulting the vicar of Greatham after an argument over public rights of way. He constructed a harbour and railway, and by the end his company’s interests included collieries and shipping.

Senior became West Hartlepool’s first MP in 1868 — but things went downhill from there. In his attempts to make Hartlepool the Liverpool of the eastern seaboard, he began to massage the figures. He was embroiled in lawsuits and there was a parliamentary inquiry which only late in the day cleared him of acting for improper personal gain. By the mid-1870s Senior was no longer an MP and was pretty much broke, so the warm-hearted townsfolk raised a large sum of money so that he could enjoy a comfortable old age. He died before the funds could be handed over, so they created a beautiful park and named it after him. There are also three pubs bearing his name, a statue, and a primary school. My family haven’t lived anywhere near the town since the 1940s, but I started visiting 20 years ago. The town owes me and my family nothing. In fact, we owe it a debt of gratitude for how the townspeople honoured him, even after everything had gone wrong.

Time was when Hartlepool was such a safe Labour seat that the party could parachute in a Londoner like Peter Mandelson and he’d win in a landslide. Lord Mandelson has been back in his old stomping ground, causing the mischief he so excels at. In an interview, he very calculatedly gave me a double-name check as a possible ‘third force’ in the by-election, but simultaneously managed to paint me as a closet Tory, which I’m not. He was, perhaps, repaying a favour. My (non-political) father helped Mandelson when he was selected in 1992, doing a photo-op with him and lending the family name to his campaign. Now Mandy can claim to my father that he gave his lad a helpful nudge, while at the same time trying to drain votes from the Tories. Tactically, he is still a wily old fox.

During an otherwise rather dry meeting for candidates and agents, a strange, highly strung independent started mouthing off against restrictions on campaigning in the lead-up to Prince Philip’s funeral. ‘I even campaigned after Princess Diana died,’ he said. I interjected, saying it wasn’t the time or place for such gibberish. Ten days later, I woke up to national headlines. It turns out the 41-year-old candidate is on the Sex Offenders Register after a conviction for voyeurism. This would rule him out as a teacher or police officer, but not as a politician. To see him running for parliament enraged me. Whatever the rules say, he should’ve left the contest and the town. It also occurs to me that he has managed to amass more media coverage than all of the other independents put together. Some 4,000 people signed a petition to block sex offenders from office, so yes, there’s a fuss. But is there a chance voters will remember the name but not the context? ‘Just make sure you get more votes than him,’ warns an old friend. I can hope.

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