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Brexit stance helps May win support in Labour heartlands

HARTLEPOOL (United Kingdom)

In the former shipbuilding hub of Hartlepool, traditional bastion of the centre-left Labour 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 EU, ignoring the pleas of the pro-European Labour 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 Labour strongholds.

“And don’t mention immigration! I totally disagree with the Labour view on immigration. We’re a small island, so I’m against it!” fumes Stan.

Labour 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 Labour 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 Labour 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.

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 Labour supporters.

Tribal loyalties and historical bitterness against the Conservatives run deep in communities such as 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. Labour has held Hartlepool since the early 1960s, with “New Labour” architect Peter Mandelson securing 60 per cent 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.

Successful negotiations in Brussels could boost the Conservative Party in England, which voted overwhelmingly to leave the European Union.

“The Conservatives are going to be more of a threat,” Labour Leader of Hartlepool Borough Council Christopher Akers-Belcher said.

Labour politicians were overwhelmingly in favour of the European Union.

Agence France-Presse