In a proud and troubled UK town, voters wonder whether their election choice will make a difference

HARTLEPOOL, England — A lot of politicians have promised change to voters in Hartlepool, a wind-whipped port town in northeast England. For decades, Labour Party representatives said they would fight for working people, even as well-paid industrial jobs disappeared. Later, Conservatives under then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson vowed to bring new money and opportunities on the back of Brexit.

But as British voters prepare to elect a new government Thursday, Hartlepool’s many problems persist. It has higher unemployment, lower pay, shorter life expectancy, more drug deaths and higher crime rates than the country as a whole.

Opinion polls put center-left Labour well ahead of the governing Conservatives nationwide, but many voters remain undecided — and even more are jaded. To regain power after 14 years, Labour must win back disillusioned voters in Hartlepool and other northern towns where decades of economic decline have spawned health and social problems, and a deep sense of disillusionment.

“At the last election, I voted Conservative because Johnson promised our waters back — and lied through his teeth,” said Stan Rennie, a fisherman who has caught lobster off Hartlepool for five decades but says he can scarcely scrape a living anymore.

“Because we’re the northeast, I don’t think the government even knows we exist,” he said. “We’re the forgotten land.”

A proud, rugged town jutting into the North Sea 250 miles (400 kilometers) north of London, Hartlepool is scarred by industrial decline. The shipyards and steelworks that once employed thousands are long gone. The fishing fleet has been shrinking for years.

In a 2016 referendum, Hartlepool voted heavily to leave the European Union, persuaded by Johnson and other Brexit-backers that quitting the bloc would let the U.K. control immigration and free up billions in cash for struggling post-industrial areas.

Three years later, many postindustrial areas in England’s Labour-supporting “Red Wall” switched allegiance and backed Johnson’s Conservatives in an election. Labour hung on in Hartlepool until 2021, when the Conservatives won the seat in a special election.

In the past few years, Hartlepool has received government money to spiff up its train station, restore old buildings and revive the waterfront, but well-paid jobs have been slow in coming. In a town center pocked with empty shopfronts, retiree Sheila Wainwright had to stop and think when asked what politicians had delivered for Hartlepool.

“Improved the promenade?” she suggested. “But then you’ve seen all the shops shutting, like every other town.

“I don’t think you can believe anybody. They all come out with this stuff, but it never happens, as far as I can see.”

Jonathan Brash, Labour’s election candidate, hears similar sentiments when he knocks on doors around town. He says he understands the mistrust.

“Everywhere people seem to look, they find a country that’s not really working,” said Brash, a local councilor who grew up in Hartlepool. “Our public health service is in real difficulties. Crime is on the rise on our streets. There aren’t enough police officers. Our public realm has disintegrated over the last 14 years.”

Few feel more betrayed than Hartlepool’s fishing community, custodians of a trade central to the town’s identity. Many fishers voted for Brexit to rid themselves of EU quotas and red tape, but say that little has changed. And a new crisis erupted in late 2021 when dead and dying shellfish started washing up along England’s northeast coast.

Rennie and other fishermen suspect dredging conducted as part of redevelopment of old industrial land has churned up toxins from the nearby River Tees. It was once one of the country’s most heavily industrialized areas — a center for chemicals, ships and steel — and is now the site of a huge regeneration area known as the Teesside Freeport.

Two government-commissioned reports ruled out dredging but failed to confirm the cause of the die-offs. Rennie and a group of fishing colleagues have enlisted scientists to do their own research.

“Our lifetime’s work has just been destroyed,” Rennie said, standing alongside the fishing boat he can no longer afford and the lobster pots that often come up empty. “It’s in our blood, and they’re taking that away.”

Rennie can trace fishing in his family back 500 years. But, he says, “it’s going to die with me.”

Fishing seems fated to play a tiny part in Hartlepool’s economic future, but politicians hope another aspect of its maritime heritage — shipping — will be crucial.

The town’s 200-acre (81-hectare) commercial port employs far fewer people than when ships were built and coal unloaded here, but it’s still a place of activity, much of it related to the fast-growing renewable energy industry. Businesses in the port make undersea coils for wind turbines and help service vehicles building the world’s biggest offshore wind farm, Dogger Bank, some 80 miles (130 kilometers) from land.

“We’re going to have a major role in terms of the offshore wind sector” and other emerging technologies including carbon capture and hydrogen, said Jerry Hopkinson, executive chair of operator PD Ports.

“There are some really, really big opportunities here on Teesside,” he said. “Lots more cargo, lots more ships.”

While Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s Conservatives stress the need for Britain to keep drilling for oil and gas in the North Sea, Labour is promising to make Britain a “clean energy superpower.” Brash, Labour’s candidate, says that will help Hartlepool regain its place as an engine of the British economy.

“Right now, across the world we’ve got reindustrialization with cleaner technology,” he said. “We’re behind in the U.K., frankly, because of the decisions of this government. But it is coming. … Hartlepool and places like it have to be the absolute epicenter of that change.”

That change can seem a long way off. Whoever becomes prime minister — and polls suggest it will be Labour leader Keir Starmer — will face stagnant economic growth, high public debt and creaking public services. Independent think-tank the Institute for Fiscal Studies says neither Labour nor the Conservatives are being honest with the public about the choice the next government will face between higher taxes and worsening public services.

Opinion polls suggest Brash will beat Conservative incumbent Jill Mortimer in Hartlepool, though many voters express a lack of enthusiasm for either party. Some are tempted by veteran right-wing politician Nigel Farage, who has shaken up the campaign with his anti-immigration rhetoric and populist promises.

“He’s funny, and that’s what people relate to,” said Dylan Fisher, a care worker for people with autism. “Maybe he is the biggest liar of all. But he’s really good at talking.”

Mistrust of politicians is as common as empty shops in Hartlepool. But amid the shuttered stores, a handful of creative small businesses provide bright spots. Linda Li, who helps manage the Kraft Work Yarns knitting shop, beams as she stands amid a rainbow of yarn balls and talks warmly about the store’s customers and regular “knit and natter” sessions.

Born and raised in Hartlepool, she treasures its sense of community and says, “It’s the only town that I can feel at home in.”

She always votes — “I’ve never missed an election” — and said she will back Labour, though she isn’t confident it will deliver on its promises.

“We know what the party say they stand for, but whether or not it will happen, we don’t know,” she said. “But it’ll be nice to have a bit of a change from what we have now.”

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