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Last Updated: Monday, 27 September, 2004, 10:50 GMT 11:50 UK
Local heroes battle in Hartlepool
By Brian Wheeler
BBC News Online political reporter in Hartlepool

Coronation Street's Liz Dawn backs Labour candidate Iain Wright
Liz Dawn gives some celebrity backing to Iain Wright
A bare-chested young man staggers out of a pub begging for small change to "phone his wife".

When none is forthcoming, he changes tack.

"People like you are the scum of the earth," he shouts, making a half-hearted attempt to chase after us.

"This is precisely the sort of thing we are talking about," says millionaire businessman and Conservative by-election candidate Jeremy Middleton, quickening his step.

Mr Middleton has spent the past half-hour discussing "anti-social behaviour" with BBC News Online.

And here it is in all its booze-addled glory.

High profile contenders

But Mr Middleton is unlikely to make political capital out of this little incident.

Anti-social behaviour is certainly an issue, along with drug-fuelled crime, at Thursday's Hartlepool by-election.

But Hartlepool is a proud town, and it doesn't take kindly to outsiders sneering at it.

Ex-MP Peter Mandelson campaigning at the 2001 election
Ex-MP Mandelson campaigns in 2001

The Liberal Democrat candidate Jody Dunn has already received flak for mentioning "oafish behaviour" and "half-drunk" voters in her weblog.

The town may have seen its share of hard times, when unemployment soared in the 1980s and 90s, but it has gone through a bit of a renaissance in recent years, symbolised by its new marina complex.

Thursday's by-election is caused by the departure of Peter Mandelson to Brussels and, for a brief moment back in June, it looked as though the town was in line for another high-profile representative.

There was talk Robert Kilroy-Silk, or Middlesbrough mayor Ray "Robocop" Mallon, standing.

Battle for votes

But, in the end, all of the main contenders went for more or less local candidates.

Labour's man, Iain Wright - "Wright from the town, Wright for the town" - is, as he is quick to point out, "Hartlepool born and bred".

"Your Mam used to do my hair," a woman proudly informs the 32-year-old accountant as he tours one of the town's sprawling council estates.

Robert Kilroy-Silk and Joan Collins
UKIP has its celebrity backers
"My Mam and Nan know about 90% of the town. It is a very close knit town, with a strong sense of community," he says.

"I think Peter Mandelson was a huge asset for the town. He put it on the map politically and people are grateful to him for that.

"But now that Peter Mandelson has decided to go to Europe, I think local people want a local person representing them."

On the day BBC News Online visits, Home Office minister Caroline Flint is pushing the message that Labour will be tough on drugs - "unlike the Lib Dems".

Hartlepool is a Labour-held town.

Mr Wright, defending a 15,000 majority, is ahead in the polls, but he is having to scrap for every vote with the Liberal Democrats, determined to prove that their recent successes in former Labour strongholds Leicester South and Brent East are more than just a flash in the pan.

By-election juggernaut

The Lib Dem by-election juggernaut rolled into town within hours of Mr Mandelson's new job being confirmed.

And the approach roads to the town are lined with orange diamonds advertising their candidate Mrs Dunn.

The other parties have just talked a lot of hot air up to now, it is time to focus on the real issues.
Jeremy Middleton
Tory candidate
Mrs Dunn, a local barrister, is a karate brown belt, former DJ and part-time poet.

Party workers talk excitedly about her "charisma," claiming that once local people have met her they are guaranteed to vote for her.

But you suspect the fact she lives in nearby Darlington, bitter football rivals of Hartlepool United, might count for more with some voters. It is certainly the angle Labour is pushing.

"I have not been parachuted in," she insists, " if I won I would move myself and my family to Hartlepool."

Hospital closure

According to their opponents, the Lib Dems have "hijacked" the campaign to save the local hospital - a claim vehemently denied by Mrs Dunn, who says they were there from the start.

Whatever the case, John Reid and Tony Blair have both assured Hartlepool's residents that the hospital will not close.

Mrs Dunn dismisses their words as "empty promises" and says "people on the doorstep" do not believe Mr Blair's assurances.

Jeremy Middleton
Jeremy Middleton is a company director

She admits she has a little ground to make up on Labour, and is currently targeting Tory voters in an attempt to close the gap.

But she says Labour has been forced on to the back foot, using her job, which has sometimes seen her having to defend drug dealers in court, to suggest she is soft on the issue.

"It shows they are scared," she says, "if Labour can not hold on to Hartlepool, they will be in huge trouble."

The Lib Dems' anti-war stance won them a lot of votes in recent by-elections, but it may not help much in Hartlepool.

There is no significant Muslim population and the area was not exactly a hotbed of anti-war feeling, as the anti-war Respect candidate John Bloom readily admits.

Late start

Conservative candidate Jeremy Middleton, who lives in Newcastle, talks as tough, if not more tough, on drugs and crime as his Lib Dem and Labour opponents.

The Tories came a clear second in Hartlepool at the last election but, if the opinion polls are to be believed, he seems destined to battle it out for third place with the UK Independence Party.

He admits a Tory winning in Hartlepool would be like the local football team "winning the FA cup" but insists he is in with a chance, saying "anything is possible at by-elections".

But he denies his campaign's late start - the Conservatives were the last of the major parties to select a candidate - has hampered his chances.

"The other parties have just talked a lot of hot air up to now, it is time to focus on the real issues."

Kilroy-Silk

He contrasts his grassroots campaigning style with the "slick willy" approach of the Lib Dems, and denies he is worried by UKIP breathing down his neck.

UKIP is pushing hard in Hartlepool.

It had been planning to wheel out its big guns - in the shape of Mr Kilroy-Silk.

But the the former chat show host said he was unwilling to leave his East Midlands constituency so soon after being elected their MEP.

Then it looked as if fuel protester Andrew Spence was going to be in the hot seat, but the local party selected a relative unknown, local councillor Stephen Allison.

Like the rest of the main contenders, they are hoping his strong local connections - Mr Allison was involved in the campaign to save the hospital - will pay dividends at the ballot box.

Most importantly of all, as he has been happy to demonstrate, he has a birth certificate with "born in Hartlepool" written on it.

Other Hartlepool candidates, in alphabetical order, are:

Edward Abrams (English Democrats);

Philip Berriman (Independent);

Ronnie Carroll (Independent);

Christopher Herriot (Socialist Labour Party);

Alan Hope (Monster Raving Loony Party);

Richard Rodgers (The Common Good);

Iris Ryder (Green Party);

James Starkey (National Front);

Paul Watson (Fathers 4 Justice);




SEE ALSO:
Hartlepool candidates
21 Sep 04  |  Politics


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