HARTLEPOOL, United Kingdom: In the former shipbuilding hub of Hartlepool, traditional bastion of the center-left Labor 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 European Union, ignoring the pleas of the pro-European Labor 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 Labor strongholds.
“And don’t mention immigration! I totally disagree with the Labor view on immigration. We’re a small island, so I’m against it!” Stan said.
Labor 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 Labor seat since 1924.
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 Labor 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 Agence France-Presse.
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 Labor 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.
Labor has held Hartlepool since the early 1960s, with “New Labor” 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).