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A coal fire, glowing in the grate at the end of the bar, illuminates the gloom in The Ship, an 18th century pub in Hartlepool’s historic Headland area, as a grey day fades to dusk.
The pub’s takings so far today are £12. Publican Alan Hay recalls The Headland’s past glory days — “this was a booming pub”, he says dejectedly — as he explains why he is voting Leave in the UK’s referendum. Migrants top his list. “We have a chance to say ‘stop’. It’s our country and we want it back.”
Everybody he knows is voting out, says Paul Noble, a 57-year-old steel erector who has called in for a pint. “It’s only the rich, the elite, who want to stay.”
His reasons for voting Leave are clear. “Immigration; erosion of powers; European despots and dictators telling us what to do all the time.”
But that is not all. “Redcar steel; they didn’t lift a hand. The fishing industry; they gave our sea away.” Tanks and trains for UK use are made overseas. “It’s as if they want big industry in Britain to be finished.”
On his current construction site in Leeds, there is a Romanian earning £7.20 an hour. Among British tradesmen, he says, “you wouldn’t get a bricklayer for twice that.”
If you have money in your pocket in Hartlepool, it can go a long way. You can buy a cappuccino in a café for £1.10 and a presentable three bedroom semi-detached house in a decent area for under £90,000. Some residents earn wages on or above the national average, although many others are on low pay.
But Hartlepool is still haunted by the demise of traditional industries, some lost decades ago. There are local people in their 30s who have never had a job and men, particularly over 50, who have lost their economic foothold and, almost, any hope of working again. The male unemployment rate is more than twice the national average.
At the town’s Citizens Advice Bureau, manager Joe Michna says debt accounts for 40 per cent of inquiries, the biggest category. It was 20 per cent 15 years ago.
“I was getting £100 a day on a roof in London,” sighs 55-year-old Perry Bolton, smoking a roll up outside King John’s Tavern. He returned home six years ago to help his ageing father and has not worked since, except three days on unpaid placement in a pound shop. Fearful of immigration, he will vote out but adds: “Personally I don’t think anything will change.”
Hartlepool’s foreign-born population is, in fact, strikingly low. Official figures put it at 2.77 per cent in 2011, way below the 13 per cent England and Wales average. Hartlepool has not been much of a draw for immigrants. “But they’re slowly coming here,” says Mr Hay. “Britain will not be Britain for much longer.”
Labour has dominated Hartlepool politically for decades but Ukip is digging in. It came second in the 2015 general election, slashing Labour MP Iain Wright’s majority, and last month won three local council seats, making it the second-biggest party. Loss of services at Hartlepool’s hospital is a huge local issue. Some locals hope an Out vote will help tackle this. They do not believe Brexit would jeopardise jobs at north-east workplaces such as Nissan. “They have a good deal in Sunderland,” says Mr Bolton.
Recently elected Ukip councillor Shane Moore, a lorry driver, worries that availability of eastern European drivers is depressing drivers’ wages. He often hears local complaints about Polish people taking unskilled jobs, even though Hartlepool has no large Polish community. “A lot of English people feel it’s their right to have those jobs,” he says.
Jenny, a civil servant but not currently working, notes a strain of “xenophobic arguments” in her home town. But, she adds: “It’s not an easy place to live. It’s not easy to find work.” It took her husband Steve, who moved to join her, two years to get a job. They plan to vote Remain.
Hartlepudlians love Hartlepool. “There’s a real sense of community still,” says Mr Moore. But, he adds: “We do tend to feel isolated; we’re out on a limb.”
Geographically this is undeniable; historically too. Legend has it that in the Napoleonic wars, when a French ship sank, its pet monkey was washed ashore at Hartlepool, mistaken for a French spy and hung. The story lives on; many Hartlepudlians, to this day, are proud to be nicknamed Monkeyhangers.
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